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Decisions Relating to Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation: commentary 1: CPR and the cost of autonomy
  1. Robin Gill
  1. University of Kent at Canterbury

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    Since the last generation medical ethics has seen a remarkable shift from benign medical paternalism to patient rights and autonomy. Whereas once it might have been acceptable for doctors to decide, largely on their own, what was in the best interests of their patients, today senior health professionals are expected to make decisions jointly both with patients or their carers and with other health professionals. Patient autonomy and justice, and not simply beneficence, are usually thought to be crucial to medical ethics today.

    Although I strongly support this shift in medical ethics, I believe it is important to recognise that it has some cost to medical professionals, to patients and even at times to the National Health Service (NHS). Medical paternalism, when it was genuinely benign, did have some benefits both for doctors and for their patients. Yet precisely because most of us are no longer prepared to be at the receiving end of such paternalism, these particular benefits are now largely lost to us.

    The new joint statement, Decisions Relating to Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation,1 illustrates this point well. At the outset it admits that “health professionals are aware that decisions about attempting resuscitation raise very sensitive and potentially distressing issues for the patient and people emotionally close to the patient”. It was because of these sensitive and potentially distressing issues that it was once thought acceptable to make do not attempt resuscitation (DNAR) (or DNR as it was then) orders without consulting either patients or their families and with the knowledge that the latter would probably never discover that such orders had ever been made. Now, however, health workers are warned frankly that they “should remember …

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    • Robin Gill is Michael Ramsey Professor of Modern Theology, University of Kent at Canterbury.

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