When patients lack capacity, physicians look to family and friends to step in and provide consent for treatment on behalf of the patient. These surrogates, whether they were appointed by the patient as their health care agent or become health care surrogates by default under state law based on their relationship to the patient, have the right to receive information related to the care and treatment of the patient and have the corresponding responsibility to make health care decisions for the patient based on either the patient’s previously expressed wishes or her best interests. What they don’t have, however, is the right to control and direct every minute aspect of the patient’s care in the hospital. It would take several blog posts to discuss the conflicts that occur between surrogates and health care providers because of this (such as DNR orders, barriers to discharge, and demands for certain medications, to name a few), but perhaps the most concerning example of surrogate over-reach is the issue of inadequate pain management.
The use of pain medication can be difficult for both patients and providers, especially with the rate of opioid abuse in this country. Patients and their families are often afraid of the possibility of addiction, while physicians are reticent to prescribe narcotics for fear of misuse. Whether or not a patient is a “drug-seeker” is a common question that arises when physicians are deciding what to prescribe. However, in the context of terminal illnesses – particularly at the very end of the illness – the shift in focus from curative to palliative care highlights the need for sufficient pain control in the face of nearly intractable pain. It is in this context that denial of pain medication, or poor pain management, is most clearly an ethical issue.