An Algorithmic Approach to Patients Who Refuse Care But Lack Medical Decision-Making Capacity

J Clin Ethics. 2019 Winter;30(4):331-337.


Situations in which patients lack medical decision-making (MDM) capacity raise ethical challenges, especially when the patients decline care that their surrogate decision makers and/or clinicians agree is indicated. These patients are a vulnerable population and should receive treatment that is the standard of care, in line with their the values of their authentic self, just as any other patient would. But forcing treatment on patients who refuse it, even though they lack capacity, carries medical and psychological risks to the patients and the hospital staff. It is also often impractical to force some treatments, especially in the long term. For example, independent of the ethical "should" question, how would one force hemodialysis for the rest of a patient's life, or force a surgery that requires weeks of post-operative physical therapy? In this article we present a novel algorithm that can help clinicians with ethical and practical decision making, with the goals of achieving the best outcomes for patients and reducing moral distress for their caretakers and clinicians.

MeSH terms

  • Clinical Decision-Making / ethics*
  • Decision Making*
  • Ethics, Clinical*
  • Humans
  • Mental Competency
  • Patient Participation
  • Renal Dialysis
  • Treatment Refusal* / ethics