• advance directives;
  • decision-making;
  • moral obligations;
  • projection


When patients are unable to make medical decisions for themselves due to cognitive impairment, surrogate decision makers are often called on to guide the medical team. Important to any decision made on behalf of the patient is that the decision reflects the values and preferences of the patient in light of the patient's clinical status and prognosis. Challenges arise for the medical team when surrogates themselves have questionable decision-making capacity due to psychosocial issues, conflict of interest, or the obvious projection of their own personal values and treatment preferences instead of the patient’s. Even if an alternative surrogate is available, there is no consensus on when and how to switch from the primary surrogate to the alternative surrogate. This paper uses a clinical case to explore the notion of surrogate decision-making capacity, offering guidance for determining when it is appropriate to defer to an altern­ative surrogate, as well as guidance for managing the process of appointing the alternative as the new primary decision maker. (Intern Med J 2003; 33: 257−259)