The coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic has introduced many new clinical challenges. Consider the patient with fever and dyspnea who tests positive for COVID-19 but does not believe in COVID-19 and wants to leave the hospital against medical advice (AMA). Or the patient with numerous cardiovascular risk factors and crushing substernal chest pain who is too afraid of contracting COVID-19 to come to the emergency department. These challenging clinical scenarios can be addressed in the context of decision-making capacity (DMC), for which our medical colleagues often call upon psychiatrists to assist. This article reviews the framework for DMC assessment, describes how COVID-19 affects DMC assessment, and discusses approaches to these scenarios using the DMC framework.
Review of decision-making capacity
Assessment of DMC is a fundamental clinical skill. It allows a physician to balance autonomy with beneficence and non-maleficence. An autonomous decision is a decision that is made intentionally, with understanding, and without controlling influences (these are the elements of informed consent).1 However, if a patient cannot make a decision with intention and understanding, then beneficence and non-maleficence must prevail in order to protect the patient. Capacity assessments evaluate a patient’s ability to make an intentional and understood choice.
In order to prove capacity, a patient must demonstrate 4 functional abilities:
- choice refers to the ability to communicate a relatively stable choice2,3
- understanding refers to the ability to convey information about the illness, risks/benefits of the chosen intervention, and risks/benefits of alternative options.2,3 Understanding measures objective information about the medical situation
- appreciation refers to the patient’s ability to apply that information to his/her own life.2,3 Appreciation requires insight into having the illness and the ability to anticipate how one’s life would be impacted by one’s condition and choice. This is where life experiences and values come into play
- reasoning is intimately tied to appreciation. It refers to the ability to explain how the decision was made and which factors were most important.2,3
Most clinicians and ethicists endorse a “threshold” approach to decisional capacity, which specifies that the level of evidence required to prove capacity depends on the gravity of the medical situation (Figure 1A).1,4,5 The gravity of the situation is based on the risk/benefit analysis. Consider two treatments with equal benefit: one has minimal adverse effects (gastrointestinal upset) and the second has significant adverse effects (myelosuppression). Accepting the first treatment requires less intentionality and understanding than accepting the second because the risk is much lower and thus has a lower capacity threshold (Figure 1B). The capacity to refuse these treatments results in the opposite ranking (Figure 1C).
Establishing a threshold helps guide the physician in determining how robust the patient’s responses must be to have decisional capacity. For a high-threshold decision, the patient must have a well-developed and highly detailed level of understanding, appreciation, and reasoning.
How COVID-19 affects assessment of decision-making capacity
Three characteristics of the novel severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) and COVID-19 illness impact decision-making assessment:
- high level of contagiousness
- high health-care utilization
- the uncertainty about its clinical course and outcomes.
The high level of contagiousness stems from this virus’s estimated basic reproduction number (R0) of 2.2 to 5.7 (which indicates the expected number of cases from any single case), its long incubation period, and the potential for asymptomatic and pre-symptomatic shedding.6-9 Decision-making capacity assessments must therefore consider community-level effects in the risk/benefit analysis. Because SARS-CoV-2 is a new virus affecting humans, it can easily overwhelm existing hospital systems. This happened in Wuhan, China; Lombardy, Italy; and New York. In a stressed system, physicians will have to factor health-care utilization into the risk/benefit analysis. Finally, because this is a novel virus, there is still considerable uncertainty about the epidemiology, clinical course, and outcomes.10 The minimal dose of virus needed to cause illness is unknown. Patients can deteriorate quickly and unpredictably into needing ventilator support.11 Treatment options are limited, and many candidates are being investigated.12 This uncertainty hinders physicians’ ability to accurately estimate risks and benefits for an individual patient when discussing various medical decisions. As our understanding of SARS-CoV-2 improves, this uncertainty will lessen.
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