Capacity for Preferences: Respecting Patients with Compromised Decision-Making

Academic Article


  • When a patient lacks decision-making capacity, then according to standard clinical ethics practice in the United States, the health care team should seek guidance from a surrogate decision-maker, either previously selected by the patient or appointed by the courts. If there are no surrogates willing or able to exercise substituted judgment, then the team is to choose interventions that promote a patient's best interests. We argue that, even when there is input from a surrogate, patient preferences should be an additional source of guidance for decisions about patients who lack decision-making capacity. Our proposal builds on other efforts to help patients who lack decision-making capacity provide input into decisions about their care. For example, “supported,” “assisted,” or “guided” decision-making models reflect a commitment to humanistic patient engagement and create a more supportive process for patients, families, and health care teams. But often, they are supportive processes for guiding a patient toward a decision that the surrogate or team believes to be in the patient's medical best interests. Another approach holds that taking seriously the preferences of such a patient can help surrogates develop a better account of what the patient's treatment choices would have been if the patient had retained decision-making capacity; the surrogate then must try to integrate features of the patient's formerly rational self with the preferences of the patient's currently compromised self. Patients who lack decision-making capacity are well served by these efforts to solicit and use their preferences to promote best interests or to craft would-be autonomous patient images for use by surrogates. However, we go further: the moral reasons for valuing the preferences of patients without decision-making capacity are not reducible to either best-interests or (surrogate) autonomy considerations but can be grounded in the values of liberty and respect for persons. This has important consequences for treatment decisions involving these vulnerable patients.
  • Authors

    Published In

    Digital Object Identifier (doi)

    Author List

  • Wasserman JA; Navin MC
  • Start Page

  • 31
  • End Page

  • 39
  • Volume

  • 48
  • Issue

  • 3