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A Young Person Refuses Life-Saving Treatment: Is That Ok?

In my Monday post, I posed a challenging real-life dilemma we recently faced in the ER. As always, I modified the posited case from the actual facts but the broad outlines were true to life: A young person of questionable capacity wants to refuse lifesaving treatment.

Short answer, for those not interested in the discussion: This case is a no-brainer. You intubate. In this case, sadly, the outcome was not good. As I hinted, early hypoxia in the setting of blunt chest trauma is a bad sign. The patient was intubated, but became progressively more difficult to ventilate over the next couple of days and subsequently died. The family was at the bedside and, from what I understand, they were very happy to be able to be with him in his final hours. On the other hand, due to his drug abuse, he proved extremely difficult to sedate (even on max propofol!) and was agitated and combative, in restraints, until hypoxia began to take its toll. While I am confident I did the “right” thing, the tally sheet is decidedly mixed as to whether was beneficent in its effect.


A key concept here is whether the patient has the capacity to make an informed consent or refusal to treatment. There is a lot of vague thinking and hand-waving that surrounds this issue. I was going to write up an extensive discussion of the requirements for capacity, but my work was done for me by inwhiteink, and much better than I could have. So go read it. Her conclusion:

From the available information, it is unclear if the case patient could manipulate information in a rational manner for this specific situation. We do not know the reasons why he did not want to be intubated. One reason could have been his stated desire to die. … It may be unfair to assume that he cannot manipulate information in a rational manner simply because he could not state reasons for refusing intubation. However, it is also unfair to assume that he can manipulate information in a rational manner in the absence of data.

Exactly. Contrary to the popular misconceptions, the presense of alcohol or opiates or benzodiazepines does not prima facie render someone incapable. Capacity is demonstrated by the patient’s actions/words, as interpreted by a trained physician or other professional. A mental health condition (such as depression/suicidality) can render a patient “not capable,” but again, you must show how their condition relates specifically to the treatment the patient wishes to undergo or refuse.

A second consideration is the gravity of the decision in question. There is an important qualitative difference between refusing lifesaving treatment and, say, choosing an outpatient cardiac workup over an inpatient workup. An observer needs a much higher level of confidence in the patient’s capacity to allow the former.

Context also matters. This is why I added the follow-on questions relating to the patient’s age and the likelihood of death despite treatment. For example, a patient whose illness is likely to be lethal 98% of the time would not raise any eyebrows should he choose comfort care and refuse invasive curative therapy. Similarly, age naturally (for some) brings an acceptance of death. I have seen many a senior with a wonderful, serene acceptance of the approach of death. If a senior who was not evidently depressed said to me, “Doc, I’ve lived a great life and I’m with my family and I don’t want to go through X,” I can accept that as a reasoned decision to refuse care.

In this case, there were a variety of compelling reasons to over-ride the patient’s refusal of care. First, this was a very serious, irrevocable decision. It was life-or-death, decide now, no takebacks. You can always withdraw care later, but you can’t re-animate the dead if you change your mind. And, um, you can’t change your mind if you’re dead. The context argued for full treatment. He was young and not at the stage in life when most people view death with equanimity. He had a serious injury but with a reasonable expectation of cure. And I had a strong impression that his capacity was diminished. It wasn’t clear-cut, but there was enough doubt that in this case I was not prepared to allow him to die. I would have allowed him to refuse, say, an x-ray of his knee. But not intubation.

So what are the legal and risk management implications here?

First of all, as pointed out, there are real risks of allowing him to refuse care. Whether or not you get sued, a case like this in which a young patient dies will evoke strong feelings within the care team and the case will be very closely examined in retrospect. Your hospital administrator and quality committees expect that in such cases that all appropriate processes are followed and rigorously documented. Maria suggests a “second opinion” in such cases, which would be a very good idea. This is not just to protect your own ass, but also to protect the patient. When you are literally making life-and-death decisions for someone else, the function of a second opinion/risk management/patient advocate is to double-check your judgement. In such cases, you would be well advised to involve whatever resources are available at your facility – ethics team, chaplain, whatever. If you do follow all the steps, and you get sued after all, your defense will be much stronger for having done all that extra work and having documented the process clearly.

On the other hand, should you decide to treat despite the patient’s vigorous objections, you are on much firmer ground. From a simple malpractice point of view, there is a civil tort involving “wrongful death,” but not “wrongful living,” at least not in this context. You can be at risk for a bad outcome based on delayed diagnosis, etc, but generally not on the theory that you should have allowed him to die. (If there is precedent to the contrary, I’m unaware of it. Childbirth is a separate circumstance.) Though assault and battery charges have at times been levied against physicians who impose treatment on patients against their will, traditionally the courts have shown deference towards the judgment of a treating physician, and have especially given weight to the presumption that preserving life should be the default approach except in clearly defined cases.

So, basically, you are safe in treating and at high risk should you allow him to die. While I would not advocate choosing a course of action solely based on perceived liability risk, this is a case where the ethics and the legal issues point the same direction.

The final point I would address is that of process. What do you have to do to over-ride someone’s wishes, or, conversely, to allow them to die, if appropriate? It’s not as simple as just holding them down and pushing succinylcholine. The first thing I do, after formulating what I think should be the plan, is see if there is consensus among the care team (meaning the nurses and any other doctors involved). If there is a nurse who feels strongly that you should NOT do something, that conflict needs to be resolved before you move forward. Similary, the family needs to be engaged, if possible, to assess their feeling on what should be done. If the stars align and everybody is in agreement on the course of action, then you’re good to go. (Again, I am assuming fairly exigent circumstances.) If there are irreconcilable conflicts, either within the care team or with member(s) of the family, then you are going to need to go up the chain of command. In my facility that generally involves a call to the risk manager or administrator on call; your institution may vary in its procedures.

I’m not surprised that the comments/emails I got on this case were about 9-1 in favor of treatment. It was a no-brainer, by and large. But it was an interesting case because it illustrated the difficulty in assessing decisional capacity and the elements required to over-ride a patient’s wishes. And I enjoy taking a specific case and using it as an opportunity to drill down to the essential principles involved. Hope you enjoyed it, too.

*This blog post was originally published at Movin' Meat*

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One Response to “A Young Person Refuses Life-Saving Treatment: Is That Ok?”

  1. says:

    It must be stressed that by obfuscating details for patient privacy, one could inadvertedly be skewing the response of those posting. A reckless suicidal youth is pitted against a compassionate, ethics-bound physician.

    What if the facts were closer to a patient readmitted multiple times because of life-threatening ailment, consenting to non-blood medical management? Might the attending who wishes to perform a seemingly routine procedure perceive a blood transfusion refusal as suicidal?

    Self-determination is a fundamental right granted to all patients. Is the person lucid, consistent in resolve? If not, is there a signed and witnessed medical directive confirming patient wishes? Are competent patient advocates or healthcare agents on hand? Can colleagues with more experience in such matters be consulted? Would it be advisable to transfer care to a physician skilled with similar cases?

    We must be careful, as bloggers, not to manipulate a scenario in a manner that makes the patient seem incompetent in order to rally support for a preconceived opinion that conflicts with patient autonomy.

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