The Ethical Management of the Noncompliant Patient

Cambridge Quarterly of Healthcare Ethics 12 (3):289-299 (2003)
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It is a rare patient who always does everything healthcare providers advise. Sometimes no harm comes from this; sometimes good does. But occasionally, great harm comes from not listening, as when it results in patients returning time and again for costly and invasive treatments of, say, infections, valve replacements, pressure ulcers, and so forth. No class of patients arouses more anger and resentment in healthcare providers, who often put out a call to invoke some version of the three strikes rule and refuse care. And if the patients are also unemployed substance abusers who live in a local park, impolite or dangerous to staff, disruptive to other patients, and have intimidating visitors, the call to say “No” is louder. Can care ever be refused? If so, when? These are the questions we take up in this article. The answers we provide were developed as part of a Paraplegics and Quadriplegics with Pressure Ulcers Project carried out at Vancouver Hospital and Health Sciences Centre. Following an established usage, we refer to patients who exhibit a cluster of the above characteristics, the dominant one of which is a reluctance to heed medical advice, as “noncompliant patients.” This term is offensive to some, but the politically correct lexicon does not provide any alternative which is as short and clear or substantially different. We use the term as a convenient way of referring to a familiar class of patients and without any imputation of blame



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