One of the cornerstones of medical ethics is the concept of patient autonomy. MedicineNet.com provides a succinct definition: “The right of patients to make decisions about their medical care without their health care provider trying to influence the decision. Patient autonomy does allow for health care providers to educate the patient but does not allow the health care provider to make the decision for the patient.”
At lunch the other day, I was talking about a particularly challenging case when this concept came up. After thinking for a few minutes, I was struck by a sense of irony that I wanted to share in case others have thoughts about this.
The patient is a teenager with leukemia. When she was diagnosed with leukemia, we didn’t really give her parents any choices about treatment. We told them their daughter has leukemia, she needs chemotherapy, and we think she should get this particular regimen. Sure we received informed consent to treat the patient (whether this is truly informed consent is a topic for a future post), but it’s not like we gave the parents a choice of regimens or the option to forego chemotherapy. And because leukemia in children is curable, even if the parents had refused chemotherapy, we would have gone to court to force her to be treated.
Did we respect the patient’s autonomy here? Based on the definition above, I would say we did not. We certainly influenced the decision – by not giving the parents any choices.
Fast forward to last week, when a bone marrow examination revealed residual leukemia. The next course of action at this point is not clear: should she go straight to a bone marrow transplant? If so, should it be a standard transplant, or a more experimental approach? How about more chemotherapy? Is so, which regimen? The right choice is not clear. My “lunch date” is not a physician. So he asked me, “How will the family decide?” Full of respect for the patient’s autonomy, I answered, “Well, I will lay out the options, list some pros and cons, and the family will make a decision.”
This is when Marco asked the question that sparked this posting: “How will they make that decision? They don’t have the expertise to make that call, do they? Isn’t that what you are trained for?”
And that’s when it struck me. This family has had two key decision points: the day the girl was diagnosed, and the day her marrow showed persistent leukemia. At the first point, my expertise was unimportant… any oncologist would have said the same thing (that she needed chemotherapy), and the patient’s autonomy was only a secondary consideration. At the second point, when the optimal choice is NOT clear, when the decision should be MOST informed by someone experienced, that’s when I was explicit about my desire to lay out choices and let the family decide.
I still don’t think I should tell the family what decision to make… I just think it’s ironic that when the decisions are more complex, and my expertise matters more, the patient’s autonomy is even more important.
Maybe that’s how it should be. What do you think?