An ethics challenge in hospital medicine


Editor’s note: In this article, we present an archetypal ethics challenge in hospital medicine. The authors, members of the SHM’s Ethics Special Interest Group and clinical ethics consultants at their respective hospitals, will comment on the questions and practical approaches for hospitalists.

Ms. S, an 82-year-old woman with severe dementia, was initially hospitalized in the ICU with acute on chronic respiratory failure. Prior to admission, Ms. S lived with her daughter, who is her primary caregiver. Ms. S is able to say her daughter’s name, and answer “yes” and “no” to simple questions. She is bed bound, incontinent of urine and feces, and dependent on her daughter for all ADLs.

This admission, Ms. S has been re-intubated 4 times for recurrent respiratory failure. The nursing staff are distressed that she is suffering physically. Her daughter requests to continue all intensive, life-prolonging treatment including mechanical ventilation and artificial nutrition.

During sign out, your colleague remarks that his grandmother was in a similar situation and that his family chose to pursue comfort care. He questions whether Ms. S has any quality of life and asks if you think further intensive care is futile.

On your first day caring for Ms. S, you contact her primary care provider. Her PCP reports that Ms. S and her daughter completed an advance directive (AD) 10 years ago which documents a preference for all life prolonging treatment.

Question #1: What are the ethical challenges?

Dr. Chase: In caring for Ms. S, we face a common ethical challenge: how to respect the patient’s prior preferences (autonomy) when the currently requested treatments have diminishing benefits (beneficence) and escalating harms (non-maleficence). Life-prolonging care can have diminishing returns at the end of life. Ms. S’s loss of decision-making capacity adds a layer of complexity. Her AD was completed when she was able to consider decisions about her care, and she might make different decisions in her current state of health. Shared decision-making with a surrogate can be complicated by a surrogate’s anxiety with making life-altering decisions or their desire to avoid guilt or loneliness. Health care professionals face the limits of scientific knowledge in delivering accurate prognostic estimates, probabilities of recovery, and likelihood of benefit from interventions. In addition to the guideposts of ethical principles, some hospitals have policies which advise clinicians to avoid non-beneficial care.

Dr. Jack Chase

Such situations are emotionally intense and can trigger distress among patients, families, caregivers and health care professionals. Conscious and unconscious bias about a patient’s perceived quality of life undermines equity and can play a role in our recommendations for patients of advanced age, with cognitive impairment, and those who live with a disability.

Question #2: How might you meet the patient’s medical needs in line with her goals?

Dr. Khawaja: In order to provide care consistent with the patient’s goals, the first step is to clarify these goals with Ms. S’s surrogate decision-maker, her daughter. In a previously autonomous but presently incapacitated patient, the previously expressed preferences in the form of a written AD should be respected. However, the AD is only a set of preferences completed at a particular time, not medical orders. The clinician and surrogate must consider how to apply the AD to the current clinical circumstances. The clinician should verify that the clinical circumstances specified in the AD have been met and evaluate if the patient’s preferences have changed since she originally completed the AD.

Dr. Lubna Khawaja

Surrogates are asked to use a Substituted Judgement Standard (i.e., what would the patient choose in this situation if known). This may differ from what the surrogate wants. If not known, surrogates are asked to use the Best Interest Standard (i.e., what would bring the most net benefit to the patient by weighing benefits and risks of treatment options). I often ask the surrogate, “Tell us about your loved one.” Or, “Knowing your loved one, what do you think would be the most important for her right now?”1

I would also caution against bias in judging quality of life in patients with dementia, and using the term “futility,” as these concepts are inherently subjective. In general, when a colleague raises the issue of futility, I begin by asking, “…futile to achieve what goal?” That can help clarify some of the disagreement as some goals can be accomplished while others cannot.

Finally, I work to include other members of our team in these discussions. The distress of nurses, social workers, and others are important to acknowledge, validate, and involve in the problem-solving process.

Question #3: If you were Ms. S’s hospitalist, what would you do?

Dr. Khawaja: As the hospitalist caring for Ms. S, I would use the “four boxes” model as a helpful, clinically relevant and systematic approach to managing ethical concerns.2

This “four boxes” model gives us a practical framework to address these ethical principles by asking questions in four domains.

Medical indications: What is the nature of her current illness, and is it reversible or not? What is the probability of success of treatment options like mechanical ventilation? Are there adverse effects of treatment?

Patient preferences: Since Ms. S lacks capacity, does her daughter understand the benefits and burdens of treatment? What are the goals of treatment? Prolonging life? Minimizing discomfort? Spending time with loved ones? What burdens would the patient be willing to endure to reach her goals?

Quality of life: What would the patient’s quality of life be with and without the treatments?

Contextual features: My priorities would be building a relationship of trust with Ms. S’s daughter – by educating her about her mother’s clinical status, addressing her concerns and questions, and supporting her as we work through patient-centered decisions about what is best for her mother. Honest communication is a must, even if it means acknowledging uncertainties about the course of disease and prognosis.

These are not easy decisions for surrogates to make. They should be given time to process information and to make what they believe are the best decisions for their loved ones. It is critical for clinicians to provide honest and complete clinical information and to avoid value judgments, bias, or unreasonable time pressure. While one-on-one conversations are central, I find that multidisciplinary meetings allow all stakeholders to ask and answer vital questions and ideally to reach consensus in treatment planning.

Dr. Chase: In caring for Ms. S, I would use a structured approach to discussions with her daughter, such as the “SPIKES” protocol.3 Using open ended questions, I would ask about the patient’s and her daughter’s goals, values, and fears and provide support about the responsibility for shared-decision making and the difficulty of uncertainty. Reflecting statements can help in confirming understanding and showing attention (e.g. “I hear that avoiding discomfort would be important to your mother.”)

I find it helpful to emphasize my commitment to honesty and non-abandonment (a common fear among patients and families). By offering to provide recommendations about both disease-directed and palliative, comfort-focused interventions, the patient’s daughter has an opportunity to engage voluntarily in discussion. When asked about care that may have marginal benefit, I suggest time-limited trials.4 I do not offer non-beneficial treatments and if asked about such treatments, I note the underlying motive and why the treatment is not feasible (“I see that you are hoping that your mother will live longer, but I am concerned that tube feeding will not help because…”), offer preferable alternatives, and leave space for questions and emotions. It is important not to force a premature resolution of the situation through unilateral or coercive decisions5 (i.e., going off service does not mean I have to wrap up the existential crisis which is occurring.) A broader challenge is the grief and other emotions which accompany illness and death. I can neither prevent death nor grief, but I can offer my professional guidance and provide a supportive space for the patient and family to experience this transition. By acknowledging this, I center myself with the patient and family and we can work together toward a common goal of providing compassionate and ethical care.

Dr. Chase is associate professor, Department of Family and Community Medicine, University of California San Francisco; and co-chair, Ethics Committee, San Francisco General Hospital. Dr. Khawaja is assistant professor, Department of Internal Medicine, Baylor College of Medicine, Houston, and a member of the Ethics Committee of the Society of General Internal Medicine.


1. Sulmasy DP, Snyder L. Substituted interests and best judgments: an integrated model of surrogate decision making. JAMA. 2010 Nov 3;304(17):1946-7. doi: 10.1001/jama.2010.159.

2. Jonsen AR, Siegler M, Winslade WJ. Clinical ethics: A practical approach to ethical decisions in clinical medicine. 6th ed. New York: McGraw Hill Medical; 2006.

3. Baile WF, et al. SPIKES-A six-step protocol for delivering bad news: application to the patient with cancer. Oncologist. 2000;5(4):302–311. doi: 10.1634/theoncologist.5-4-302.

4. Chang DW, et al. Evaluation of time-limited trials among critically ill patients with advanced medical illnesses and reduction of nonbeneficial ICU treatments. JAMA Intern Med. 2021;181(6):786–794. doi: 10.1001/jamainternmed.2021.1000.

5. Sedig, L. What’s the role of autonomy in patient-and family-centered care when patients and family members don’t agree? AMA J Ethics. 2016;18(1):12-17. doi: 10.1001/journalofethics.2017.18.1.ecas2-1601.

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