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Special Article
May 9, 2011

On Patient Autonomy and Physician Responsibility in End-of-Life Care

Arch Intern Med. 2011;171(9):849-853. doi:10.1001/archinternmed.2011.180

In current medical practice, excessive or reflexive deference to an unreflective concept of patient autonomy may inadvertently compromise patient autonomy by placing unwanted and unreasonable responsibility for technical medical decisions on patients or their surrogate decision makers rather than on their physicians. Such practices can harm patients by depriving them of the expert, professional advice they both need and deserve to make important decisions about their health care. We describe herein how the patient-physician relationship has evolved in recent decades as more life-sustaining and life-saving treatments, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, have become available. We then examine respect for patient autonomy and describe how patient autonomy can be promoted while the physician's responsibility for technical medical decisions is simultaneously affirmed. The patient is the expert on his or her values, goals, and preferences, while the physician is the expert on the medical means for honoring the patient's perspective. We conclude that an intervention, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation, should not be offered when, based on the patient's own criteria, it promises no physical or psychosocial benefit or would be far more harmful than beneficial.

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