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Open Access Debate

“Nudge” in the clinical consultation – an acceptable form of medical paternalism?

Ajay Aggarwal12*, Joanna Davies3 and Richard Sullivan1

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Research Oncology, King’s Institute of Cancer Policy, Guys Hospital, 3rd Floor Bermondsey Wing, Great Maze Pond, London SE1 9RT, England

2 London School of Economics and Political Science, Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE, England

3 Department of Palliative Care, Guys & St Thomas’ NHS Trust, Guys Hospital, Great Maze Pond, London SE1 9RT, England

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BMC Medical Ethics 2014, 15:31  doi:10.1186/1472-6939-15-31

Published: 17 April 2014



Libertarian paternalism is a concept derived from cognitive psychology and behavioural science. It is behind policies that frame information in such a way as to encourage individuals to make choices which are in their best interests, while maintaining their freedom of choice. Clinicians may view their clinical consultations as far removed from the realms of cognitive psychology but on closer examination there are a number of striking similarities.


Evidence has shown that decision making is prone to bias and not necessarily rational or logical, particularly during ill health. Clinicians will usually have an opinion about what course of action represents the patient’s best interests and thus may “frame” information in a way which “nudges” patients into making choices which are considered likely to maximise their welfare. This may be viewed as interfering with patient autonomy and constitute medical paternalism and appear in direct opposition to the tenets of modern practice. However, we argue that clinicians have a responsibility to try and correct “reasoning failure” in patients. Some compromise between patient autonomy and medical paternalism is justified on these grounds and transparency of how these techniques may be used should be promoted.


Overall the extremes of autonomy and paternalism are not compatible in a responsive, responsible and moral health care environment, and thus some compromise of these values is unavoidable. Nudge techniques are widely used in policy making and we demonstrate how they can be applied in shared medical decision making. Whether or not this is ethically sound is a matter of continued debate but health care professionals cannot avoid the fact they are likely to be using nudge within clinical consultations. Acknowledgment of this will lead to greater self-awareness, reflection and provide further avenues for debate on the art and science of clinical communication.

Nudge; Libertarian paternalism; Communication; Framing; Shared decision making; Medical consultation