Back to the bedside? Making clinical decisions in patients with prolonged unconsciousness

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In 1993, the UK High Court decided that Tony Bland was unaware of himself and his environment, had no interest in medical treatment and allowed withdrawal of treatment. Subsequently, the court has reviewed all cases of stopping feeding and hydration in people with a prolonged disorder of consciousness. Their focus has been on determining whether the person is in the permanent vegetative state, because this avoids considering what is in a person's Best Interests. Consequently, much resource is spent distinguishing the vegetative state from the minimally conscious state and often clinical decisions are delayed or not made because of the requirement to go to court. In this paper, I argue that the neurophysiological basis of consciousness is unknown, and one cannot test whether the necessary structures are functioning. Unconscious people have responsiveness which varies; they may even have brief behaviours suggestive of awareness. No single clinical sign or investigation nor assessment battery can prove the presence (or absence) of consciousness or its permanence. The diagnosis of consciousness is clinical. Furthermore, awareness varies across a spectrum. There is no separate vegetative state. People simply have very limited or absent awareness. Even if there were such a state, it cannot be identified. The ethical and legal issues associated with decisions on treatment of unconscious people are no different from similar decisions in other patients. All decisions should be taken within the Best Interests framework and process. There should be no requirement to take any particular decision to court in this patient group.

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