Dialysis decisions concerning cognitively impaired adults: a scoping literature review

Jordan A Parsons*, Jonathan C S Ives

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle (Academic Journal)peer-review

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Chronic kidney disease is a significant cause of global deaths. Those who progress to end-stage kidney disease often commence dialysis as a life-extending treatment. For cognitively impaired patients, the decision as to whether they commence dialysis will fall to someone else. This scoping review was conducted to map existing literature pertaining to how decisions about dialysis are and should be made with, for, and on behalf of adult patients who lack decision-making capacity. In doing so, it forms the basis of a larger body of work that is exploring how these decisions ought to be made.

To identify relevant papers, searches were conducted on Ovid MEDLINE(R), Embase, PsychINFO, The Cochrane Library, and Web of Science. Inclusion criteria were then applied, requiring that papers: report on empirical studies about how decisions about dialysis are made and/or discuss how decisions about dialysis should be made with, for, and on behalf of adult patients who lack decision-making capacity; be published from 1961 onwards; and be published in English. This resulted in 27 papers eligible for inclusion.

Of note, the majority of papers originated in the United States. There was wide variation across the included papers. Extracted data were grouped under the following themes: involving various parties (patient involvement, family dominance, and wider communication); objectivity about care options (including difficulties with family detachment); cultural sensitivity; medical versus non-medical factors; managing nonadherent patients; and the role and prevalence of substituted judgement. The literature shows that there is inconsistency in the principles and processes surrounding decisions made about dialysis with, for, and on behalf of patients who lack decision-making capacity.

This scoping review demonstrates that there is significant variation in both the practice and theory of dialysis decision making with, for, and on behalf of cognitively impaired adult patients. Complexity arises in considering who should get a say, how influential their say should be in a decision, and what factors are most relevant to the decision. A lack of up-to-date literature exploring this issue is highlighted, with this scoping review providing a useful groundwork from which further research can be undertaken.
Original languageEnglish
Article number24 (2021)
Number of pages17
JournalBMC Medical Ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 5 Mar 2021


  • Chronic kidney disease
  • Cognitive impairment
  • Dementia
  • Dialysis
  • Kidney failure
  • Mental Capacity Act 2005

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