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ETHICS IN MEDICINE   University of Washington School of Medicine

Parental Decision Making:
Case 2 Discussion

A lumbar puncture is the only way to diagnose meningitis and a delay in treatment could cause significant harm to the child. Complications from the procedure are very rare, and the benefit in this case is likely to be substantial. There is not time to obtain an ethics consult or court order. The physician should attempt to address the parents' misconceptions about lumbar punctures and to reassure them about the safety of the procedure and perhaps offer to use appropriate pain control methods. A second opinion from another physician may prove helpful.

Should these efforts not result in parental permission, the physician is justified in contacting the state’s child protection agency to obtain the authorization necessary to proceed with the procedure and treatment of the child. While parental authority to make medical decisions for their children is broad, it does not include choices that may seriously harm their children. As long as the physician has used reasonable clinical judgment in determining the need for the lumbar puncture, legal liability should be minimal.

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