Should an Incapacitated Patient’s Refusal of Treatment Be Respected? Discussion of a Hypothetical Case

Eubios Journal of Asian and International Bioethics 25 (4):112-118 (2015)
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Abstract

In the present super-aging society, issues concerning what treatment should be given for incapacitated patients have become more important than ever before. This paper discusses whether or not an incapacitated patient’s refusal of treatment should be respected. The authors present a complete hypothetical scenario involving a 75-year-old moderately demented man suffering from malignant lymphoma. Of primary importance are the respect for patient dignity and the protection of human rights. Acts such as coercion, disregard, restriction, and surveillance can be unethical in many situations. The effectiveness of chemotherapy for malignant lymphoma and its adverse outcomes could offset each other, leaving no net benefits for the patient. The patient is vulnerable and this very vulnerability requires the utmost protection and care. However, protection must be sensitive and comprehensive and the protection of his life at the expense of many other valuable factors is not justifiable. Coercing unwanted treatment would be intrusion, not protection, because of the physical and psychological suffering. When the refusal is explicit, consistent, and stable enough, it should to be viewed as true and current desire. Due to moderate dementia, the patient has lost his rational capacity, but his emotional capacity remains. If the remaining portion of his personality is rooted in his feelings, these feelings should be respected as much as possible. Those involved in the care of the patients who refuse treatment should not force them to undergo it simply on the grounds that it may be an established standard in their own country. What must be asked first is whether or not forced treatment would promote the patient’s subjective well-being. Additionally, treatment decisions should not be distorted due to the selfishness or discriminatory feelings of those involved in his care. In situations in which patients lack decisionmaking capacities, overriding the patients’ refusals of treatment should be regarded as an exception, rather than a standard course of action. Even in patients who are incapacitated, treatment refusal could stem from the feelings of the individual. Their subjective wellbeing would not be improved through close observation, restraint, denial, and coercion, the purpose of which they does not understand.

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