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Grand Rounds
February 2, 2011

Clinician Integrity and Limits to Patient Autonomy

Author Affiliations

Author Affiliations: Children’s Mercy Bioethics Center, Children’s Mercy Hospital, Kansas City, Missouri (Dr Lantos); and National Institutes of Health Clinical Center, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland (Dr Wendler and Ms Matlock).

JAMA. 2011;305(5):495-499. doi:10.1001/jama.2011.32

A 28-year-old man with chronic granulomatous disease developed worsening respiratory status in the setting of chronic bacterial and fungal infections. The attending physician recommended transfer to the intensive care unit (ICU), but the patient declined. The patient understood that the nurses in the ICU have expertise in caring for patients with poor respiratory function. He also understood that he faced an increased risk of dying if he remained on the medical ward. At the same time, the patient was familiar with the nurses on the medical ward and felt comfortable there. Unsure of whether it was appropriate for clinicians to agree to provide less than optimal care for a critically ill patient, the clinicians on the medical ward requested a bioethics consultation. This article reviews the ethical issues that arise when patients ask clinicians to provide less than optimal care. Although it is well established that clinicians ought to respect patient autonomy, that obligation conflicted, in the present case, with the clinicians’ sense of professional integrity. Future research on this vital but underexplored topic is needed to determine the extent to which clinicians’ professional integrity places limits on the types of patient requests to which they should agree.

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