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Open Access Debate

Inapplicability of advance directives in a paternalistic setting: the case of a post-communist health system

Gentian Vyshka1* and Jera Kruja2

Author Affiliations

1 Biomedical & Experimental Department, Faculty of Medicine, Rr. Dibrës 371, Tirana, Albania

2 Service of Neurology, University Hospital Centre 'Mother Theresa', Rr. Dibrës 371, Tirana, Albania

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BMC Medical Ethics 2011, 12:12  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-12-12

Published: 15 June 2011

Abstract

Background

The Albanian medical system and Albanian health legislation have adopted a paternalistic position with regard to individual decision making. This reflects the practices of a not-so-remote past when state-run facilities and a totalitarian philosophy of medical care were politically imposed. Because of this history, advance directives concerning treatment refusal and do-not-resuscitate decisions are still extremely uncommon in Albania. Medical teams cannot abstain from intervening even when the patient explicitly and repeatedly solicits therapeutic abstinence. The Albanian law on health care has no provisions regarding limits or withdrawal of treatment. This restricts the individual's healthcare choices.

Discussion

The question of 'medically futile' interventions and pointless life-prolonging treatment has been discussed by several authors. Dutch physicians call such interventions 'medisch zinloos' (senseless), and the Netherlands, as one of the first states to legislate on end-of-life situations, actually regulates such issues through appropriate laws. In contrast, leaving an 'advance directive' is not a viable option for Albanian ailing individuals of advanced age. Verbal requests are provided during periods of mental competence, but unfortunately such instructions are rarely taken seriously, and none of them has ever been upheld in a legal or other official forum.

Summary

End-of-life decisions, treatment refusal and do-not-resuscitate policies are hazardous options in Albania, from the legal point of view. Complying with them involves significant risk on the part of the physician. Culturally, the application of such instructions is influenced from a mixture of religious beliefs, death coping-behaviors and an immense confusion concerning the role of proxies as decision-makers. Nevertheless, Albanian tradition is familiar with the notion of 'amanet', a sort of living will that mainly deals the property and inheritance issues. Such living wills, verbally transmitted, may in certain cases include advance directives regarding end-of-life decisions of the patient including refusal or termination of futile medical treatments. Since these living wills are never formally and legally validated, their application is impossible and treatment refusal remains still non practicable. Tricks to avoid institutional treatment under desperate conditions are used, aiming to provide legal coverage for medical teams and relatives that in extreme situations comply with the advice of withholding senseless treatment.