Cookies on this website

We use cookies to ensure that we give you the best experience on our website. If you click 'Accept all cookies' we'll assume that you are happy to receive all cookies and you won't see this message again. If you click 'Reject all non-essential cookies' only necessary cookies providing core functionality such as security, network management, and accessibility will be enabled. Click 'Find out more' for information on how to change your cookie settings.

BACKGROUND: Research involving adults lacking mental capacity relies on the involvement of a proxy or surrogate, although this raises a number of ethical concerns. Empirical studies have examined attitudes towards proxy decision-making, proxies' authority as decision-makers, decision accuracy, and other relevant factors. However, a comprehensive evidence-based account of proxy decision-making is lacking. This systematic review provides a synthesis of the empirical data reporting the ethical issues surrounding decisions made by research proxies, and the development of a conceptual framework of proxy decision-making for research. METHODS: A systematic review was conducted according to PRISMA guidelines. Databases including MEDLINE, EMBASE, and CINAHL were searched using a combination of search terms, and empirical data from eligible studies were retrieved. The review followed the framework synthesis approach to refine and develop a conceptual framework. RESULTS: Thirty-four studies were included in the review. Two dimensions of proxy decision-making emerged. The ethical framing criteria of decision-making used by proxies: use of a substituted judgement, use of a best interests approach, combination of substituted judgement and best interests, and 'something else', and the active elements of proxy decision-making: 'knowing the person', patient-proxy relationship, accuracy of the decision, and balancing risks, benefits and burdens, and attitudes towards proxy decision-making. Interactions between the framing criteria and the elements of decision-making are complex and contextually-situated. CONCLUSIONS: The findings from this systematic review challenge the accepted reductionist account of proxy decision-making. Decision-making by research proxies is highly contextualized and multifactorial in nature. The choice of proxy and the relational features of decision-making play a fundamental role: both in providing the proxy's authority as decision-maker, and guiding the decision-making process. The conceptual framework describes the relationship between the framing criteria used by the proxy, and the active elements of decision-making. Further work to develop, and empirically test the proposed framework is needed.

Original publication




Journal article


AJOB Empir Bioeth

Publication Date





267 - 286


Empirical research, mixed-methods research, systematic review, Adult, Clinical Protocols, Decision Making, Empirical Research, Humans, Mental Disorders, Presumed Consent, Third-Party Consent