Back to the Case.
Following the patient’s declaration that dialysis is not something he is interested in, his niece reports that he is a minimalist when it comes to interventions, and that he had similarly refused a cardiac catheterization in the 1990s. You review with the patient and niece that dialysis would be a procedure to replace his failing kidney function, and that failure to pursue this would ultimately be life-threatening and likely result in death, especially in regard to electrolyte abnormalities and his lack of any other terminal illness.
The consulting nephrologist reviews their recommendations with the patient and niece as well, and the patient consistently refuses. Having clearly communicated his choice, you ask the patient if he understands the situation. He says, “My kidneys are failing. That’s how I got the high potassium.” You ask him what that means. “They aren’t going to function on their own much longer,” he says. “I could die from it.”
You confirm his ideas, and ask him why he doesn’t want dialysis. “I don’t want dialysis because I don’t want to spend my life hooked up to machines three times a week,” the patient explains. “I just want to let things run their natural course.” The niece says her uncle wouldn’t have wanted dialysis even if it were 10 years ago, so she’s not surprised he is refusing now.
Following this discussion, you feel comfortable that the patient has capacity to make this decision. Having documented this discussion, you discharge him to a subacute rehabilitation facility.
In cases in which capacity is in question, a hospitalist’s case-by-case review of the four components of capacity—communicating a choice, understanding, appreciation, and rationalization and reasoning—is warranted to help determine whether a patient has capacity. In cases in which a second opinion is warranted, psychiatry, geriatrics, or ethics consults could be utilized.
Drs. Dastidar and Odden are hospitalists at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor.
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