Bioethics Blogs

Unbefriended and Unrepresented: Better Medical Decision Making for Incapacitated Patients Without Healthcare Surrogates

How should we make medical decisions for incapacitated patients who have no available legally-authorized surrogate decision maker? Because these patients lack decision making capacity, they cannot authorize treatment themselves. Because they lack a surrogate, nobody else can authorize treatment either. Clinicians and researchers have referred to these individuals as “adult orphans” or as “unbefriended,” “isolated,” or “unrepresented” patients. Clinicians and researchers have also described them as “unimaginably helpless,” “highly vulnerable,” and as the “most vulnerable,” because “no one cares deeply if they live or die.”

The persistent challenges involved in obtaining consent for medical treatment on behalf of these individuals is an immense problem in ethics and patients’ rights. Some commentators describe caring for the unbefriended as “one of the most difficult problems in medical decision making.” Others call it the “single greatest category of problems” encountered in bioethics consultations.

Appropriately, this problem is getting more attention. Major policy reports from both legal and medical associations have focused on decision making for the unbefriended. Perhaps most notably, the elite mainstream media has repeatedly covered the problem of the unbefriended in the United States. Decision-making for the unbefriended has also been the primary topic of recent day-long or multi-day conferences, both themed, subject-specific conferences, and individual sessions at several national and regional professional association meetings.

Finally, the problem of the unbefriended has received increasing attention not only in the meeting halls of conferences, but also in the pages of academic literature. New articles have been printed in law journals, medical journals, nursing journals, long-term care journals, and bioethics journals.

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.