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The area of consciousness is an ever-evolving discussion particularly in relation to approaches to assessment of awareness. The paper by Wade (2016) further advances the discussion on this complex topic. The purpose of this response aims to put forward alternative views regarding points raised by Professor Wade in his paper “Back to the bedside? Making clinical decision in patients with prolonged unconsciousness” (J. Med. Ethics 2016; 0:1-7).
In this response, a number of key issues raised by Professor Wade will be explored. These include assessment modalities, the debate relating to consciousness as a spectrum, and the emphasis- or lack thereof, on the value of rigours clinical assessment in diagnosing awareness.
In his article, Professor Wade alluded to the lack of evidence to support visual tracking as an indicator for the presence of awareness. Despite gaps in the evidence to support the relevance of tracking in making a diagnosis, it continues to be a common bedside screening tool used by both physicians and other clinicians, and has been endorsed by the working party of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP); of which Professor Wade was the co-chair, as an important clinical indicator of awareness (RCP 2013, pg.7 box 1.1). Professor Wade identified the numerous reasons why tracking may be challenging for a person with severe brain injury including oculomotor impairments, visual...
In his article, Professor Wade alluded to the lack of evidence to support visual tracking as an indicator for the presence of awareness. Despite gaps in the evidence to support the relevance of tracking in making a diagnosis, it continues to be a common bedside screening tool used by both physicians and other clinicians, and has been endorsed by the working party of the Royal College of Physicians (RCP); of which Professor Wade was the co-chair, as an important clinical indicator of awareness (RCP 2013, pg.7 box 1.1). Professor Wade identified the numerous reasons why tracking may be challenging for a person with severe brain injury including oculomotor impairments, visual field deficits and neglect and this is consistent with the challenges seen clinically. This is a further reason why one might argue that assessments based on ‘uni-modal’ sensory stimulation such as the use of visual tracking in isolation is not an approach of choice. Rather, a multi-modal approach to sensory stimulation would offer a more robust method to assessment whereby patients are given an opportunity to respond to a range of stimuli therefore reducing the emphasis on a single skill.
Professor Wade argues that human judgement plays an important role in the interpretation of behaviours leading to the diagnosis of awareness. This is a valid point, and can be seen as a limitation in the behavioural approach to assessment, using tools such as the Coma Recovery Scale-Revised (CRS-R) (Giaciano et al., 2004), Sensory Modality Assessment Rehabilitation Technique (SMART) and Wessex Head Injury Matrix (WHIM) (Sheil et al., 2000). This reinforces the importance of formal training in the use of these tools as well as the value of mentorship for clinicians who are developing their skills in working with this complex patient cohort. The RCP National Clinical Guidelines advocate this approach to training for assessors (see RCP 2013, Annex 2b). Very few of the authors of the various tools stipulate the need for accreditation in their use. This is an inherent limitation as there are no guarantees that the tool will be utilised in a valid and reliable manner. There is only one available tool to the best of our knowledge that requires both training, accreditation and re-accreditation in its use. This is the Sensory Modality Assessment and Rehabilitation Technique (Gill- Thwaites 1997; Gil-Thwaites and Munday 2004; Gill-Thwaites, Elliott and Munday 2017). Whilst Seel et al., (2010) view these processes as costly, time consuming and challenging to access for geographical reasons it may be argued that such efforts ensure the clinicians who use the tool have the skills to make an accurate diagnosis of awareness.
The recommendation to use other modalities is welcomed but not always possible. The use of functional MRI (fMRI) remains largely accessible for research purposes. Moreover, the generalisation of positive findings into practical ways of interacting in a meaningful manner with one’s environment continues to present as the greatest challenge.
Consciousness as a spectrum
The author’s position as to whether consciousness should be viewed as a spectrum varies throughout the article and he appears at times, contradictory in his position.
Firstly, he proposes that there is no such thing as a clear and definitive diagnosis of any given state of awareness or unawareness. Professor Wade provides the reader with the suggestion that consciousness should be seen as a spectrum and argues that it is impossible to say with any certainty that “someone is and will remain totally unaware at all times” (pg. 5). Secondly, he suggests that the damage can be so profound such that a person can be rendered totally unaware so the idea of them remaining on a spectrum comes into question as he states “some people are severely damaged that they can be considered as being permanently totally unaware” pg.1.
This confusion is introduced from the beginning of the article starting with the title whereby he refers to prolonged unconsciousness rather than prolonged disorders of consciousness which is more typically used in clinical practice. This raises the question as to whether the word unconsciousness is less hopeful and more enduring therefore reflecting on his position that individuals can be “permanently totally unaware” negating a view that consciousness may exist but along a spectrum.
In general, his views are perplexing regarding awareness existing upon a spectrum. This may serve to confuse clinicians and family members of those in pDOC who are looking for clarity on the individuals’ awareness to assist them in their understanding of the person’s condition and to assist in the decision-making relating to the individual’s care. Regardless as to whether the states exist along a spectrum, empirical evidence and best practice guidelines advocate for a longitudinal approach to assessment, a value in detailed assessment over time, along with review of the patients awareness at intervals over their lifetime so as to identify any changes that may support greater functional or communicative engagement (RCP 2013; Yelden et al., 2017). Some assessment and rehabilitative tools such as SMART have evolved over time to acknowledge the likelihood of a ‘spectrum’ of unawareness-awareness with revisions designed to ensure that this is reflected and captures in the prolife of the patient within each modality and with staged re-assessment (Gill-Thwaites, Elliott and Munday 2017).
Professor Wade’s article provides a rich contribution to the discussion regarding assessment of consciousness and raises important points in relation to making clinical decisions for those with a PDOC. However, the importance of comprehensive assessment of awareness continues to be an integral part in directing the care and clinical management of patients and families affected by prolonged disorders of consciousness.
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Gill-Thwaites H and Munday R. (2004) The Sensory Modality Assessment and Rehabilitaiton Technique (SMART): A valid and reliable assessment for vegetative and minimally conscious state patients. Brain Injury. 2004; 1:1255-69.
Royal College of Physicians (2016) Prolonged Disorders of Consciousness: National Clinical Guideline. Available at: https://www.rcplondon.ac.uk/guidelines-policy/prolonged-disorders-consci... (Accessed: 11 July 2017).
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Wade D. (2016) Back to the bedside? Making clinical decisions in patients with prolonged unconsciousness. J. Med. Ethics. Published online first: August 8th 2016; 0: 1-7. DOI: 10.1136/medethics-2015-103140.
Yelden K., Dupport S., James LM., Kempny A., Farmer S.F., Leff A.P., Playford E.D (2017) Late recovery of awareness in prolonged disorders of consciousness – A cross sectional cohort study. Disability and Rehabilitation. 2017 June 21, 1-6.