Actions or Words? What counts when patients give inconsistent signals?

One of the challenges clinicians must learn to manage is the patient who does not adhere to medical recommendations while expressing the desire to be well. It is widely accepted that patients with the capacity to make informed decisions retain the right to make choices that are good for them and choices that are not, there are instances where capacity to make a choice becomes less relevant than the practical considerations related to achieving the patient’s goals. When patients state they wish to recover from illness but refused to comply with the necessary treatments this disconnect poses a different kind of dilemma. Morally, it is simpler to digest that that some patients will refuse treatment, and there is robust support for respecting refusals. But what do we do when a patient asks for one thing but does another? Such cases pose intractable impasses for providers who arrange care plans based on the patient’s stated goals of recovery, yet encounter what seem to be enigmatic refusals to adhere to recommendations and interventions. There is a clear obligation to attempt to understand the patient’s perspective and thoroughly as possible. What may appear to be inconsistencies in preference may very well have a logical explanation. Once efforts to unpack dissonant expressions have been exhausted, a different approach may be needed to figure out what may be possible for such a patient. The first question is often about capacity – does a patient who asks for one thing but does another possess the ability to make an informed decision? In some cases, the resolution ends here if the patient is found to be unable to make an informed decision – or does it?

The views, opinions and positions expressed by these authors and blogs are theirs and do not necessarily represent that of the Bioethics Research Library and Kennedy Institute of Ethics or Georgetown University.