Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) are like the automatic external defibrillators (AEDs) that you see everywhere these days. They deliver a shock to a heart in a lethal rhythm in order to try to restore the heart to a normal rhythm. Unlike AEDs, however, ICDs are implanted directly on a patient’s heart, are constantly monitoring it, and automatically deliver life-saving shocks whenever needed. The statistics are quite clear for patients with symptomatic heart failure in certain conditions: ICDs prevent mortality from sudden cardiac death (SCD), and are the sole effective therapy for prevention and treatment of lethal heart rhythms. And in a recent study in the Archives of Internal Medicine, more than half of doctors were so convinced by the statistical mortality benefit of ICDs that they valued the statistics more than patient preferences in making decisions about ICD placement.
On the one hand, this could be a good thing: here are a bunch of doctors who want to do what is best for their patients (the principle of beneficence). And if there were no downsides to ICDs, maybe it would be less problematic. But for many patients, the tradeoff for decreased mortality from SCD is dying instead from progressively increasing symptoms of heart failure. There are perfectly reasonable patients who, given the choice between the increased chance of a sudden death and the increased chance of a protracted death from heart failure, would choose the former (exercising the principle of autonomy); but if physicians are so enchanted by their gizmos and their ability to postpone mortality that they don’t elicit patients’ preferences — or don’t inform them of the options — then a lot of patients may be getting procedures that they would not want if they knew the full risks and benefits.
Medical technique and technology have come in the last century to wield great power. That power must be exercised with the utmost care, and with the utmost respect for persons and their inherent dignity. Our love for gizmos and all things high-tech blinds us to the fact that all techniques and technologies have unintended and unforeseen side effects. And our love for empirical, statistical data blinds us to the fact that statistics tell us exactly nothing about the person in front of us. Careful exercise of medical power requires that medical practitioners treat their patients not as part of a statistical herd but as individuals, eliciting their individual values and preferences. In many instances in modern American medicine, autonomy has been elevated too highly and led to questionable practices or to medical practitioners abdicating their duties as moral decision-makers; but the remedy for runaway autonomy does not lie in a return to a paternalism in which a doctor makes all of the decisions for a passive patient.