The Right Choice? Surgeons, patients, and ethical analysis



In July 2011, I first had the opportunity to write a column on ethics for ACS Surgery News. That article, "Responding to Family/Patient Requests," explored possible responses to the family members’ requests to "do everything" for a critically ill patient. The article was published under the tag line, "The Right Choice."

Since that first article, I have had the opportunity to write 12 additional columns on different ethical issues in the care of surgical patients. The issues have ranged from considerations of informed consent and disclosure of information to the challenges of innovative techniques and scarce resources. Each of these columns has continued to be under the heading "The Right Choice." As I considered what to write about this month, I reviewed my previous articles and I was struck by a worrisome possibility. In the challenging surgical cases presented, is the suggestion that I know "the right choice" actually wrong?

Medical ethics has increasingly become an important topic in medical schools and the clinical care of patients since the late 1970s. Although the medical and surgical care of patients has always had an ethical dimension, it has only been in the last several decades that the ethical issues have been separately identified and analyzed. As the acceptance of surgeons making decisions about what is "best" for their patients has shifted to increasing respect for the patient as an autonomous decision maker, we have seen the importance of understanding patient preferences increase.

At the same time, as medical and surgical care has improved, we now have more options to prolong patients’ lives even when the quality of those lives may be dramatically diminished. These factors have led to the increased consideration of ethical dimensions of decisions that we must help our patients make.

Although many authors have suggested ways to proceed with the ethical analysis of cases, few methods have been as widely adopted as that suggested by Albert Jonsen, Mark Siegler, and William Winslade in their influential book, "Clinical Ethics: A Practical Approach to Ethical Decisions in Clinical Medicine," 7th edition (New York: Lange Clinical Science/McGraw Hill, 2010). These authors suggest that the analysis of a case should include attention to four sets of issues: medical indications, patient preferences, quality of life, and contextual features. By analyzing these issues for a difficult case, we are often able to see where the underlying principles of beneficence, nonmaleficence, respect for patient autonomy, and justice may be at odds.

For example, in the case that I discussed in the July 2011 issue, about the 80-year-old woman with extensive gangrenous bowel, a central concern was whether the surgical decision making should be altered by the family member’s request to "do everything you can." In this case, I suggested that requests from surrogate decision makers must be tempered by the realities of the case and the importance of not harming a patient by providing burdensome care that has minimal chance of success.

As I reread that prior article, I am struck by the fact that I suggest a way of thinking about the case and a series of considerations that are important. However, I am not comfortable saying that I have identified the single correct course of action. I believe that although ethical analysis of cases has tremendous value for doctors and patients, there is rarely one right answer. There may be several wrong answers, and there may be several acceptable answers, but there is rarely a single right choice. My goal in these columns that I wrote in the past and hope to write in the future is to raise awareness of the ethical dimensions of the case, to suggest important considerations, and perhaps even to identify some of the ethical principles that may be relevant. But I do not believe that I can identify "the right choice

In the very first edition of "Clinical Ethics" published in 1982, Jonsen, Siegler, and Winslade wrote in the preface, "We do not merely discuss or analyze the ethical problems; we offer counsel about decisions. Lest this be thought presumptuous, we do not consider our counsel the single and final answer. We offer it in the tradition of medical consultation: The consultant may bring to the practitioner’s view of the case not only broader information but another perspective."

I have tried to provide this type of information and perspective in the ACS Surgery News ethics columns and in view of the difficulty of determining the single right answer to many challenging cases, future columns will be found under the new heading, "The Right Choice?" By adding the critical question mark, I hope that readers will be reminded of the need for ongoing discussion of the challenging ethical questions that arise in the care of surgical patients.

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