The role of family surrogates in providing a voice for incapacitated patients is of crucial importance. Usually, surrogates have the best interests of the patient in mind and try to work with the physician in charge to provide the best treatment possible for the patient. In most cases there is agreement between the surrogate and the physician about the treatment plan and the goals of care. But as those of us who do clinical ethics consultations know, there are some cases, maybe 5% or fewer, where there are serious conflicts between surrogates of patients lacking capacity and physicians. I want to briefly explore a type of conflict that we seem to be seeing more often—when the surrogate attempts to get too involved in the medical management of the patient. Let me use a couple of sample cases to illustrate the type of conflict I have in mind.
The first is the case of an elderly patient with dementia and with multiple medical problems, including severe pressure ulcers. This patient requires regular dressing changes for the pressure ulcers in order to keep them clean and well managed, requiring the patient to be turned, which causes her significant discomfort. When these dressing changes happen, the standard of care is to make sure the patient suffers as little as possible, so a small amount of morphine is given. But the family surrogate informed the nurse that she should not use morphine, as she wanted the patient to remain as alert as possible at all times. When the nurse tries to perform the dressing changes without giving morphine the patient groans, grimaces, and appears agitated and in pain. The nurse feels distraught that she is causing the patient to suffer unnecessarily.