- Clinical Commentary
The case scenario describes a difficult clinical and ethical challenge of a psychiatric patient refusing treatment in the context of a treatment-resistant condition that may be affecting her capacity to refuse treatment.
The patient described in the case scenario displayed partial treatment refusal as evidenced by her refusal of ECT and adherence with medication and her voluntary hospital admission. Partial treatment refusal is generally more common than absolute treatment refusal1 and can be sporadic, time-limited, periodic or continuous. It is important for the medical team to clarify which category of treatment refusal this patient’s refusal falls under. These broad categories include the doctor-patient relationship, religion, secondary gain, treatment- or illness-based refusals.2 The proper identification of category of treatment refusal will guide subsequent management.
Refusal of treatments may be in response to reality-based transference issues like fear, distrust or pressure from the patient’s family. In this particular case, there is little data about her relationship with her treating psychiatrist, but the lack of a trusting doctor-patient relationship could be a factor for treatment refusal. The treating psychiatrist at the inpatient setting could be different from the patient’s routine outpatient psychiatrist and this could result in the lack of a trusting doctor-patient relationship. The remedy for this would be to develop a trusting relationship between her treating psychiatrist and the patient via understanding the patient’s needs and concerns. A useful adjunct would be to identify someone with whom the patient has a trusting relationship and recruit that person to help develop trust in the doctor-patient relationship. On this point, it is interesting to note that the patient’s family was noted to be highly supportive and influential in previous treatment decisions, agreed [End Page 235] with the treating psychiatrist’s treatment recommendation and yet both the treating psychiatrist and the patient’s family were unable to convince her to accept ECT. One possibility is that the patient may see her family’s support of the treating psychiatrist’s recommendation as one reason to refuse treatment. This possibility warrants deeper explorations of her premorbid underlying cultural and religious beliefs and attitudes towards her family and her perceived role in her community.
Religion-based refusals of treatment (e.g. blood transfusions for Jehovah’s Witnesses) are less prominent in psychiatry than in general medicine but may manifest in treatment refusal due to advice from religious leaders on the need for spiritual solutions to the patient’s challenges. Religion-based refusals need to be distinguished from an illness-based refusal but if truly present will require the support of appropriate religious leaders to allow the patient more management options other than spiritual support for her psychiatric disorder. There is no specific information about the patient’s religion and religion-based refusals of ECT are not particularly common so this is unlikely to be a major reason for treatment refusal in this case.
Treatment-based refusals of care are related to the specific treatment modality being offered and are often motivated by concerns about the side effects of treatment or past traumas that the treatment elicits. In this particular case, the patient has demonstrated some degree of treatment resistance as evidenced by the relapse of her bipolar disorder despite adherence to medication, and a change in management is certainly warranted. However, a change in medication management may be possible before proceeding to ECT in view of the patient’s acceptance of medication and no clear evidence of violent or disturbed behaviour in the ward. The occasional refusal of food and water is worrying, but if the patient can be coaxed to continue oral nutrition, there is no absolute indication to have ECT for rapid treatment response. Other options that may be acceptable to the patient are to optimise the dosage of current medications, switch medications or add augmenting pharmacological agents before proceeding to ECT. A change in pharmacotherapy must take into account her past treatment response and side effects to individual medications. Psychotherapy may also be considered to augment treatment response before ECT is considered.3
Illness-based refusals are the most challenging category and...