Rejection of Life-Sustaining Emergency Treatment in a Hospital Emergency Room
This thread is about the patient telling the Emergency Room doctor: "I refuse to have any emergency life-saving treatment" and then what?
Let's start out with a Case reviewed by the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court and with the conclusion of that Court.
Shine v. Vega, 429 Mass. 456, 709 N.E.2d 58 (Mass. 1999)
Civil action commenced in the Superior Court Department on March 19, 1993.
The case was tried before Margaret R. Hinkle, J.
The Supreme Judicial Court on its own initiative transferred the case from the Appeals Court.
In this wrongful death case, we must resolve the conflict between the right of a competent adult to refuse medical treatment and the interest of a physician in preserving life without fear of liability. In 1990, an invasive procedure, intubation, was forcibly performed on Catherine Shine (Catherine), a life-long asthmatic in the midst of a severe asthma attack. Dr. Jose Vega, an emergency physician at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), initiated the intubation without Catherine's consent and over her repeated and vigorous objections. In 1993, Dr. Ian Shine, Catherine's father and the administrator of her estate, brought a multi-count complaint against Dr. Vega and MGH seeking damages for tortuous conduct and the wrongful death of his daughter. He alleged that Catherine was traumatized by this painful experience, and that it led to her death two years later. On that occasion, Catherine again suffered a severe asthma attack but refused to go to a hospital because, it was claimed, she had developed an intense fear of hospitals. Her father alleged that Catherine's delay in seeking medical help was a substantial factor in causing her death.
At trial the defendants took the position that, confronted with a life-threatening emergency, Dr. Vega was not required to obtain consent for treatment from either Catherine or her family. A Judge in the Superior Court agreed, and charged the jury that no patient has a right to refuse medical treatment in a life-threatening situation. She also instructed that in an emergency the physician need not obtain the consent of the patient or her family to proceed with invasive treatment. A jury returned verdicts for the defendants on all counts. Dr. Shine appeals from the judgment entered on the jury verdicts, and from the denial of his motion for judgment notwithstanding the verdict or a new trial. He contends that the trial Judge incorrectly instructed the jury that (1) a patient's right to refuse medical treatment does not apply in an "emergency" medical situation; (2) it is not a battery for a physician to treat a patient without obtaining consent if the treatment is necessary to prevent death or serious bodily harm; and (3) it is not false imprisonment forcibly to restrain a patient in a life-threatening situation. He also challenges the Judge's ruling excluding certain notes Catherine made concerning her treatment at MGH. We transferred the case here on our own motion. We conclude that the instructions were erroneous, and that the errors were prejudicial. We vacate the judgment and remand the case to the Superior Court for a new trial.
The Massachusetts Supreme Court referred the case back in order for the jurors to make a decision as to whether Catherine had the capacity to make her own decision regarding how she wanted to be treated by the emergency room physician. If she had capacity then her decision would have been final and any treatment beyond her decision would have been illegal even if the physician considered the incubation a life-saving procedure. The statement given to the jurors by the judge in the Superior Court was in error since any patient who has capacity to make their own medical decisions can make binding decision which must be followed regardless whether the treatment is emergent and life-threatening.
The "emergency exception", the right of a physician to provide life-saving emergency treatment to a patient without specific consent by the patient and without moral or legal penalty, has the limitation that the patient's current state prevents the patient from making an informed decision or that there is no clear evidence from some advance directive or true substituted judgment by a surrogate that that treatment would be unwanted by the patient.
A case discussion and commentary on this issue was written by Dr. Stephanie Cooper in the June 2010 Virtual Mentor. She writes " Decision-making capacity [DMC] can be altered or obscured by pathophysiological conditions, such as acute physical or mental illness, traumatic brain injury, severe pain, pain medications, substance use (withdrawal or overdose), and emotional factors, including stress, denial, and suicidal ideation. Certainly, a comatose patient, a severely demented patient, or an intubated, head-injured patient lacks decisional capacity. Under the “emergency exception,” immediate intervention can proceed without informed consent in order to prevent death or serious disability. The emergency exception is based on the presumption that a reasonable person would consent to treatment to preserve life and health if he or she were able.
Conversely, the patient who is alert, communicative, and comprehends the situation has the ability to direct his or her health care. The grey areas lie in between. In actuality, decision-making capacity is more often questioned when the patient refuses recommended medical treatment. While the factors mentioned above may limit the patient’s decisional capacity, it is essential that the emergency physician not equate presence of an impairing condition with the lack of decision-making capacity Similarly, disagreement with the physician’s recommendation is not grounds for determining that the patient lacks decision-making capacity.
In the emergency setting, there are limitations on determining DMC. When faced with medical emergencies requiring urgent action and decision making, the emergency practitioner does not have the luxury of time to consult psychiatric professionals, an ethics committee, or hospital legal counsel. Truly emergent situations are by definition time-limited, and the practitioner must assess DMC as best as he or she can. The culture of emergency medicine is to preserve life at all costs. In the immediacy of illness and injury, survivability and outcome cannot be predicted. Consequently, emergency physicians typically 'on the side of life'"
But to do so poses legal risks. I recently posed a series of questions on this matter to a physician who teaches emergency medicine and has experience in that specialty. Here are my questions and the physician's responses:
Is there time in an ER situation to make that determination of capacity?
It is a difficult task.
Does a surrogate who can make substituted judgment have the same
decision-making power in the ER?
Only if they have an advance directive or have the legal power through a
surrogate decision making law.
Do physicians working in the ER agree with that respect of the patient's
decision or do they have to be "educated" if they refuse?
Lots of ED docs think they can “err on the side of life” and let the ICU docs sort out the decisions. Lots of education needed.
Enough said. I encourage my visitors to express their understanding of what is the function of a hospital emergency room and what is expected by the patients and what my visitor might expect in terms of emergency life preserving treatment . ..Maurice.
Graphic: From Google Images and modified by me with Picasa3.