Purpose of review
The purpose of this review is to describe ethical and legal issues that arise in the management of patients with disorders of consciousness ranging from the minimally conscious state to the coma state, as well as brain death.
The recent literature highlights dilemmas created by diagnostic and prognostic uncertainties in patients with disorders of consciousness. The discussion also reveals the challenges experienced by the disability community, which includes individuals with severe brain injury who are classified as having a disorder of consciousness. We review current guidelines for management of patients with disorders of consciousness including discussions around diagnosis, prognosis, consideration of neuropalliation, and decisions around life sustaining medical treatment.
In the setting of uncertainty, this review describes the utility of applying a disability rights perspective and shared decision-making process to approach medical decision-making for patients with disorders of consciousness. We outline approaches to identifying surrogate decision makers, standards for decision-making and decision-making processes, specifically addressing the concept of futility as a less useful framework for making decisions. We also highlight special considerations for research, innovative and controversial care, brain death, organ donation, and child abuse and neglect.