Doctors, Not Judges, Should Decide When to Treat Patients Without Their Consent

Not long ago, I took care of a middle-aged man at my hospital who had severe heart failure requiring life support. When he was disconnected from machines after a few days of treatment, he began to display psychotic symptoms, including delusional thinking, tangential speech and paranoia. He had a long history of untreated schizophrenia, I learned, which had estranged him from family members and friends, with whom he had virtually no contact.

My patient demanded to leave the hospital. However, sending him home was going to be a problem. He could not take care of himself. There was little chance he would take his medications, including a blood thinner to dissolve a clot in his heart before it caused a stroke. He was even less likely to take psychiatric drugs that he did not believe he needed.

My colleagues and I didn’t know what to do, so we called the treating psychiatrist. The psychiatrist immediately declared that our patient lacked the capacity to discharge himself from the hospital. The patient could not grasp the implications of this choice, for instance, or properly weigh its risks and benefits. The psychiatrist said the patient should remain in the hospital to receive psychiatric treatment, even against his will.

The psychiatrist’s opinion made sense to me. Patients with untreated schizophrenia have a higher rate of death than those who undergo treatment. Hopefully treatment would restore my patient’s judgment to the point where he would take his medications when he went home — or even decide not to take them, but to make that risky decision in the full appreciation of the likely consequences. (If autonomy means anything, it means that patients have the right to make bad decisions, too.) Treating him, even over his objections, seemed to be in his best interests.

However, according to New York law — and the law of other states — such involuntary treatment would require a court order. As doctors, we would have to plead our case before a judge. But was a judge without medical or psychiatric expertise the best person to decide this man’s fate?

In this case and also more generally, I think the answer is no. The law ought to be changed to keep such decisions in hospitals — in the hands of doctors, medical ethicists and other relevant experts.

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