Addressing complex hospital discharge by cultivating the virtues of acknowledged dependence

Annie B Friedrich
Theoretical Medicine and Bioethics 2020 August 4
Every day around the country, patients are discharged from hospitals without difficulty, as the interests of the hospital and the patient tend to align: both the hospital and the patient want the patient to leave and go to a setting that will promote the patient's continued recovery. In some cases, however, this usually routine process does not go quite as smoothly. Patients may not want to leave the hospital, or they may insist on an unsafe discharge plan. In other cases, there may simply be no good place for the patient to go. These complex hospital discharge situations often involve ethical, legal, financial, and practical considerations, but the ethical issues inherent in these dilemmas have received only sporadic attention from clinical ethicists at best, leaving patients, providers, administrators, and caregivers unsure about what to do. When the ethical issues are in fact brought to light, analysis usually proceeds based on a consideration of the principles of autonomy, beneficence, nonmaleficence, and justice. However, principled analysis often fails to present patients and providers with a satisfactory solution, as the principles inevitably conflict (for example, when the patient's autonomous desire to remain in the hospital conflicts with the principles of beneficence and justice). In this paper, I argue that difficult discharges are ethical dilemmas worthy of scholarly attention that goes beyond principlism, and I argue that providers and those involved in discharge planning ought to cultivate what philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre calls "virtues of acknowledged dependence" in order to care for these patients and their families. I first trace the current conversation about difficult discharge and show that the principled approach to resolving discharge dilemmas is not sufficient. I then argue that a new approach is needed, and to that end, I offer practical ways in which MacIntyre's account of the virtues of acknowledged dependence may help patients, providers, and family members to navigate issues of difficult discharge.

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