AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Journal of Ethics Header

AMA Journal of Ethics®

Illuminating the art of medicine

Virtual Mentor. January 2005, Volume 7, Number 1.

Module 2

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Case 2.3 Surrogate Decision Making—Mrs. Douglas's Choice of Treatment for Her Husband

Option Comparison

Mrs. Douglas has refused to consent to surgery for her husband. This decision is not based on the best interests standard, since it is in the interest of Mr. Douglas's survival to have cardiac surgery. Mrs. Douglas claims to be using the "substituted judgment" standard, offering the decision her husband reached earlier in the course of his illness when he did not believe he would have a heart attack and didn't want to take time out from his work for the surgery. This may not be the decision Mr. Douglas would make now because he cannot continue with his business unless he has surgery. Accordingly, the preferable course of action is option B—continuing to recommend surgery to Mrs. Douglas. Pursuing this option will likely uncover any other reasons Mrs. Douglas may have for making this decision.

If Mrs. Douglas continues to reject surgery because Mr. Douglas had previously refused and she does not provide further explanation, option A (getting a court-appointed guardian) is an acceptable option. Although involving the courts should be avoided if possible, if Mrs. Douglas makes her decisions without sound basis in substituted judgment or the best interests standard, the physicians have an obligation to try to find another surrogate.

Options C (prepping Mr. Douglas for surgery) and D (treating Mr. Douglas without surgery) should be avoided. So long as Mrs. Douglas refuses and the courts do not appoint an additional guardian, prepping Mr. Douglas for surgery fails to respect Mrs. Douglas as the legitimate surrogate decision maker. The poor prognosis of option D indicates that it too should be avoided. If Mrs. Douglas remains the legal decision maker and she requests a treatment, however, this treatment may offer Mr. Douglas some chance of survival.

Preferable: Option B

Acceptable: Option A

Avoid: Options C and D

Additional discussion and information

The people and events in this case are fictional. Resemblance to real events or to names of people, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. The viewpoints expressed on this site are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the AMA.