Ethical, palliative, and policy considerations in disorders of consciousness

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Abstract

This essay complements the scientific and practice scope of the American Academy of Neurology Guideline on Disorders of Consciousness by providing a discussion of the ethical, palliative, and policy aspects of the management of this group of patients. We endorse the renaming of “permanent” vegetative state to “chronic” vegetative state given the increased frequency of reports of late improvements but suggest that further refinement of this class of patients is necessary to distinguish late recoveries from patients who were misdiagnosed or in cognitive-motor dissociation. Additional nosologic clarity and prognostic refinement is necessary to preclude overestimation of low probability events. We argue that the new descriptor “unaware wakefulness syndrome” is no clearer than “vegetative state” in expressing the mismatch between apparent behavioral unawareness when patients have covert consciousness or cognitive motor dissociation. We advocate routine universal pain precautions as an important element of neuropalliative care for these patients given the risk of covert consciousness. In medical decision-making, we endorse the use of advance directives and the importance of clear and understandable communication with surrogates. We show the value of incorporating a learning health care system so as to promote therapeutic innovation. We support the Guideline's high standard for rehabilitation for these patients but note that those systems of care are neither widely available nor affordable. Finally, we applaud the Guideline authors for this outstanding exemplar of engaged scholarship in the service of a frequently neglected group of brain-injured patients.

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