One third to one half of patients will fail to follow a physician's treatment recommendations. Labeling such patients "noncompliant" implicitly supports an attitude of paternalism, in which the physician knows best. Patients filter physician instructions through their existing belief system and competing demands; they decide whether the recommended actions are possible or desirable in the context of their everyday lives.

Compliance can be improved by using shared decision making. For example, physicians can say, "I know it will be hard to stay in bed for the remainder of your pregnancy. Let's talk about what problems it will create and try to solve them together." Or, "I can give you a medication to help with your symptoms, but I also suspect the symptoms will go away if you wait a little longer. Would you prefer to try the medication, or to wait?" Or, "I understand that you are not ready to consider counseling yet. Would you be willing to take this information and find out when the next support group meets?" Or, "Sometimes it's difficult to take medications, even though you know they are important. What will make it easier for you to take this medication?"

Competent patients have a right to refuse medical intervention. Dilemmas may arise when a patient refuses medical intervention but does not withdraw from the role of being a patient. For instance, an intrapartum patient, with a complete placenta previa, who refuses to undergo a cesarean delivery, often does not present the option for the physician to withdraw from participation in her care. In most cases, choices of competent patients must be respected when the patient cannot be persuaded to change them.