How family caregivers' medical and moral assumptions influence decision making for patients in the vegetative state: a qualitative interview study

Journal of Medical Ethics 38 (6):332-337 (2012)
Abstract
Background Decisions on limiting life-sustaining treatment for patients in the vegetative state (VS) are emotionally and morally challenging. In Germany, doctors have to discuss, together with the legal surrogate (often a family member), whether the proposed treatment is in accordance with the patient's will. However, it is unknown whether family members of the patient in the VS actually base their decisions on the patient's wishes. Objective To examine the role of advance directives, orally expressed wishes, or the presumed will of patients in a VS for family caregivers' decisions on life-sustaining treatment. Methods and sample A qualitative interview study with 14 next of kin of patients in a VS in a long-term care setting was conducted; 13 participants were the patient's legal surrogates. Interviews were analysed according to qualitative content analysis. Results The majority of family caregivers said that they were aware of aforementioned wishes of the patient that could be applied to the VS condition, but did not base their decisions primarily on these wishes. They gave three reasons for this: (a) the expectation of clinical improvement, (b) the caregivers' definition of life-sustaining treatments and (c) the moral obligation not to harm the patient. If the patient's wishes were not known or not revealed, the caregivers interpreted a will to live into the patient's survival and non-verbal behaviour. Conclusions Whether or not prior treatment wishes of patients in a VS are respected depends on their applicability, and also on the medical assumptions and moral attitudes of the surrogates. We recommend repeated communication, support for the caregivers and advance care planning
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