Rethinking autonomy: decision making between patient and surgeon in advanced illnesses

Lauren M. Wancata, Daniel B. Hinshaw


Patients with advanced illness such as advanced stage cancer presenting with the need for possible surgical intervention can be some of the most challenging cases for a surgeon. Often there are multiple factors influencing the decisions made. For patients they are facing not just the effects of the disease on their body, but the stark realization that the disease will also limit their life. Not only are these factors a consideration when patients are making decisions, but also the desire to make the decision that is best for themselves, the autonomous decision. Also included in this process for the patient facing the possible need for an intervention is the surgeon. While patient autonomy remains one of the main principles within medicine, guiding treatment decisions, there is also the surgeon’s autonomy to be considered. Surgeons determine if there is even a possible intervention to be offered to patients, a decision making process that respects surgeons’ autonomous choices and includes elements of paternalism as surgeons utilize their expertise to make decisions. Included in the treatment decisions that are made and the care of the patient is the impact patients’ outcomes have on the surgeon, the inherent drive to be the best for the patient and desire for good outcomes for the patient. While both the patient’s and surgeon’s autonomy are a dynamic interface influencing decision making, the main goal for the patient facing a palliative procedure is that of making treatment decisions based on the concept of shared decision making, always giving primary consideration to the patient’s goals and values. Lastly, regardless of the decision made, it is the responsibility of surgeons to their patients to be a source of support through this challenging time.