Ethical Considerations in Electronic Monitoring of the Cognitively Impaired

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Cognitive impairment afflicts an estimated 16 million people in the United States. Wandering is a concerning behavior associated with cognitive impairment, as it may threaten patient safety. The risks posed by wandering place severe burdens on both professional and informal caregivers, as well as law enforcement institutions throughout the United States. As such, location trackers that could reduce this burden have become increasingly prevalent. As with many assistive technologies, the substantial promise of location trackers is counterbalanced by potential pitfalls with respect to loss of privacy and autonomy. This article reviews the ethical issues raised by electronic monitoring of cognitively impaired persons, with the goal of transcending a narrow focus on decisional capacity in favor of a patient-centered framework that is applicable and adjustable at different stages of cognitive decline. Balancing the ethical principles of beneficence and respect in treating cognitively impaired persons goes beyond the necessary step of evaluating decision-making capacity to include partnering with families, caretakers, and cognitively impaired individuals who wander in a collaborative coalition of care. An approach emphasizing the individual needs of patients and caretakers is best suited to finding solutions that implement tracking technologies in ways that both protect and empower the cognitively impaired.

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