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The Problem of Relatives

If it is accepted that family members and spouses have a right to substitute their decisions for a patient, then physicians will find themselves talking to relatives in other situations, such as abortion counseling. Protecting patient autonomy has a great benefit to physicians: the physician always knows who has the right to consent to medical care. While physicians dislike being involved in guardianship proceedings, the alternative is uncertainty in obtaining consent. Relatives frequently disagree over the care a patient should receive. The physician must choose the relatives with whom to consult. This raises questions such as whether two children trump one spouse. Does any relative with an attorney trump the rest of the family?

If the physician chooses whom to consult for consent, he or she will also be legally liable if the choice is incorrect. If no family member has a right to consent, then no family member has the right to sue for failing to be consulted about the patient's care. Conversely, if family members may be consulted, then they have a right to sue if they are unhappy with the physician's decisions.


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