Given the passage of recent legislation, the appearance of common-law reports in Canada and the United States, and the practical problems of implementation of advance directives in health care, physicians should understand the principles and issues involved. In this article, the advantages, disadvantages, and practical solutions to the problems are explored. Family physicians, geriatricians, neurologists, and psychiatrists are most likely to be consulted about advance directives in health care.
The issue of artificial feeding for patients with dementia who refuse feeding by hand is a wrenching emotional problem that can cloud clinical judgement. It is helpful to apply an analytic approach to decision making. There are five steps: gathering a comprehensive clinical database; defining the goal of treatment; knowing the treatment options available, their burdens and potential benefits; understanding the law; and defining the moral framework in which care is being given. Such an approach can be used to formulate a plan of treatment in the best interests of incompetent elderly patients who cannot speak for themselves.
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