Habermasian communication pathologies in do-not-resuscitate discussions at the end of life: manipulation as an unintended consequence of an ideology of patient autonomy

Sociol Health Illn. 2019 Feb;41(2):325-342. doi: 10.1111/1467-9566.12825. Epub 2018 Nov 20.


The focus on patient autonomy in American and increasingly British medicine highlights the importance of choice. However, to truly honour patient autonomy, there must be both understanding and non-control. Fifty-eight semi-structured in-depth interviews were conducted with internal medicine physicians at three hospitals in the US and one in the UK. At hospitals where autonomy was prioritised, trainees equated autonomy with giving a menu of choices and felt uncomfortable giving a recommendation based on clinical knowledge as they worried that that would infringe upon patient autonomy. Employing Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action, this paper explores how physician trainees' communication practices of using purposefully graphic descriptions of resuscitation to discourage that choice prevent greater understanding and compromise non-control. Central to this problem are also issues of colonisation of the life-world by the system. Physicians are fully inculcated in their respect for autonomy but unintentionally resort to strategic forms of communication that prevent patients from adequately understanding their situation because trainees feel constrained against making recommendations. However, if the ideal of autonomy is to be realised, physicians might have to move towards practices that embrace a more authentic autonomy that fosters open communication that allows for co-creation of consensus between doctors and patients.

Keywords: decisions/decision-making; doctor-patient communication/interaction; empowerment; end of life care; ethics/bioethics; palliative care.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Communication*
  • Decision Making*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Interviews as Topic
  • Male
  • Personal Autonomy*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Qualitative Research
  • Resuscitation Orders*
  • Terminal Care*
  • United Kingdom
  • United States