The Noncompliant Patient in Psychiatry: The Case For and Against Covert/Surreptitious Medication

Latha, K. S.
January 2010
Mens Sana Monographs;Jan2010, Vol. 8 Issue 1, p96
Academic Journal
Nonadherence to treatment continues to be one of psychiatry's greatest challenges. To improve adherence and thus improve the care of patients, clinicians and patients' family members sometimes resort to hiding medication in food or drink, a practice referred to as covert/ surreptitious medication. The practice of covert drug administration in food and beverages is well known in the treatment of psychiatrically ill world-wide but no prevalence rates exist. Covert medication may seem like a minor matter, but it touches on legal and ethical issues of a patient's competence, autonomy, and insight. Medicating patients without their knowledge is not justifiable solely as a shortcut for institutions or families wishing to calm a troublesome patient and thus alleviate some of the burdens of care giving. The paramount principle is ensuring the well-being of a patient who lacks the competence to give informed consent. Ethically, covert/surreptitious administration can be seen as a breach of trust by the doctor or by family members who administer the drugs. Covert medication contravenes contemporary ethical practice. Legally, treatment without consent is permissible only where common law or statute provides such authority. The practice of covert administration of medication is not specifically covered in the mental health legislation in developing countries. Many of the current dilemmas in this area have come to public attention because of two important developments in medical ethics and the law - the increasing importance accorded to respect for autonomy and loss of the parens patriae jurisdiction of the courts [parens patriae means 'parent of the country'; it permitted a court to consent or refuse treatment on behalf of an 'incapacity', or alternatively to appoint a guardian with such powers].


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