Mental Competence and Surrogate Decision-Making Towards the End of Life
Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy: A European Journal 2004; 7(2): 209-215
German legislation demands that decisions about the treatment of mentally incompetent patients require an `informed consent'. If this was not given by the patient him-/herself before he/she became incompetent, it has to be sought by the physician from a guardian, who has to be formally legitimized before. Additionally this surrogate has to seek the permission of a Court of Guardianship (Vormundschaftsgericht), if he/she intends to consent to interventions, which pose significant risks to the health or the life of the person under his/her care. This includes `end-of-life decisions'. Deviations from this procedure are only allowed in acute emergencies or cases of `medical futility'. On the basis of epidemiological and demographical data it can be shown that the vast majority of surrogate decisions on incompetent patients in Germany is not covered by legally valid consent. Moreover, the data suggests that if consent were to be requested according to the legal regulations, both the legal and medical system could realistically never cope with the practical consequences of this. Additionally, empiric research has revealed serious deficits concerning medical 'end of life-decisions' and practical performance in palliative care. As a consequence a multidisciplinary discussion has developed in Germany about the reform of present legislation with respect to key-issues like the assessment of mental competence, the options for exercising patient self-determination via advance directives and durable powers of attorney, the improvement of palliative care facilities, the clarification of formal procedures for surrogate decision-making in health care and towards the end of life and the possibilities and their limitations of controlling these decision-making processes 'externally' (e.g., by Guardianship Courts or committees). The authors discuss those proposals, which clearly dominate the present debate: They all aim to comply with the scientific basis of German law, jurisdiction and the European traditions of philosophy of health care and bioethics.
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