Empowerment Failure: How Shortcomings in Physician Communication Unwittingly Undermine Patient Autonomy

American Journal of Bioethics 17 (11):31-39 (2017)
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Abstract

Many health care decisions depend not only upon medical facts, but also on value judgments—patient goals and preferences. Until recent decades, patients relied on doctors to tell them what to do. Then ethicists and others convinced clinicians to adopt a paradigm shift in medical practice, to recognize patient autonomy, by orienting decision making toward the unique goals of individual patients. Unfortunately, current medical practice often falls short of empowering patients. In this article, we reflect on whether the current state of medical decision making effectively promotes patients' health care goals. We base our reflections, in part, on research in which we observed physicians making earnest efforts to partner with patients in making treatment decisions, but still struggling to empower patients—failing to communicate clearly to patients about decision-relevant information, overwhelming patients with irrelevant information, overlooking when patients' emotions made it hard to engage in choices, and making recommendations before discussing patients' goals.

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