Perspectives
3 July 2007

Controlling Death: The False Promise of Advance Directives

Publication: Annals of Internal Medicine
Volume 147, Number 1

Abstract

Advance directives promise patients a say in their future care but actually have had little effect. Many experts blame problems with completion and implementation, but the advance directive concept itself may be fundamentally flawed. Advance directives simply presuppose more control over future care than is realistic. Medical crises cannot be predicted in detail, making most prior instructions difficult to adapt, irrelevant, or even misleading. Furthermore, many proxies either do not know patients' wishes or do not pursue those wishes effectively. Thus, unexpected problems arise often to defeat advance directives, as the case in this paper illustrates. Because advance directives offer only limited benefit, advance care planning should emphasize not the completion of directives but the emotional preparation of patients and families for future crises. The existentialist Albert Camus might suggest that physicians should warn patients and families that momentous, unforeseeable decisions lie ahead. Then, when the crisis hits, physicians should provide guidance; should help make decisions despite the inevitable uncertainties; should share responsibility for those decisions; and, above all, should courageously see patients and families through the fearsome experience of dying.

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Supplemental Material

Appendix Table. A Comparison of Selected Advance Directives

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Information & Authors

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Published In

cover image Annals of Internal Medicine
Annals of Internal Medicine
Volume 147Number 13 July 2007
Pages: 51 - 57

History

Published online: 3 July 2007
Published in issue: 3 July 2007

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Authors

Affiliations

Henry S. Perkins, MD
From the Ecumenical Center for Religion and Health and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, San Antonio, Texas.
Acknowledgments: The author thanks Lawrence Kimmel, PhD; Susan Bagby, MA; and The University of Texas Health Science Center Faculty Ethics and Humanities Journal Club, who made thoughtful suggestions about earlier drafts.
Disclosures: None disclosed.
Corresponding Author: Henry S. Perkins, MD, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, The University of Texas Health Science Center, 7703 Floyd Curl Drive, San Antonio, TX 78229-3900.

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Henry S. Perkins. Controlling Death: The False Promise of Advance Directives. Ann Intern Med.2007;147:51-57. [Epub 3 July 2007]. doi:10.7326/0003-4819-147-1-200707030-00008

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