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Postgraduate Education Corner: Contemporary Reviews in Critical Care Medicine |

Chronic Disorders of Consciousness Following ComaChronic Disorders of Consciousness: Part Two: Part Two: Ethical, Legal, and Social Issues

John M. Luce, MD
Author and Funding Information

From the Department of Medicine and Department of Anesthesia, University of California San Francisco, and Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, San Francisco General Hospital, San Francisco, CA.

Correspondence to: John M. Luce, MD, Division of Pulmonary and Critical Care Medicine, San Francisco General Hospital, 1001 Potrero Ave, Room 5 K1, San Francisco, CA 94110; e-mail: jluce@medsfgh.ucsf.edu


For related article see page 1381

Reproduction of this article is prohibited without written permission from the American College of Chest Physicians. See online for more details.


Chest. 2013;144(4):1388-1393. doi:10.1378/chest.13-0428
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Increasing numbers of patients survive traumatic brain injury and cardiopulmonary arrest and resuscitation and are admitted to the ICU while in coma. Some of these patients become brain dead; others regain consciousness. Still others become vegetative or minimally conscious, conditions called chronic disorders of consciousness and ultimately can be cared for outside the ICU. Whether these patients would want life-sustaining therapy is difficult to determine because most have not articulated their wishes before becoming comatose. Ethics and law recognize that patients with decision-making capacity have a right to refuse such therapy and that surrogates can exercise this right for them through the principle of substituted judgment as was established by the Supreme Court of New Jersey in the case of Karen Ann Quinlan. In its decision regarding Nancy Cruzan, the US Supreme Court determined that states may require clear and convincing evidence of a vegetative patient’s prior wishes before life-sustaining therapy may be withdrawn; this standard has been applied to minimally conscious patients by state supreme courts in some cases. Nevertheless, cases such as these only come to the legal system because end-of-life decisions are contested, which is unusual, and most end-of-life decisions for specific patients with chronic disorders of consciousness are made by surrogates with recommendations from physicians without court involvement. Recent advances in neuroimaging may influence both end-of-life decision-making and legal deliberations. Targeting vegetative and minimally conscious patients in medical resource allocation remains ethically unacceptable and untested in the law.


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