Evidence-Based Reviews

Assessing decisional capacity in patients with substance use disorders

Walid Michel Nassif, MD
Director, Consultation-Liaison Service
Atlanta VA Medical Center
Decatur, Georgia
Assistant Professor
Department of Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences
Emory University
Atlanta, Georgia

The author reports no financial relationships with any companies whose products are mentioned in this article, or with manufacturers of competing products.



While most clinicians rely on a psychi­atric interview (with or without a cognitive examination) to make these determinations, several instruments have been developed to aid these evaluations, such as the MacArthur Competence Assessment Tool for Treatment (Mac-CAT-T).15 In patients with potentially reversible incapacitating conditions, serial examinations over time, especially re-evaluation when a patient has achieved and maintained sobriety, may be necessary and helpful.

How to assess decisional capacity in a patient with an SUD

The Table offers a guide to assessing decisional capacity in a patient with an SUD.

Who should conduct the assessment?

Mental health professionals—usually psychiatrists or psychologists—are consulted when there is uncertainty about a patient’s decisional capacity, and when a more thorough mental status examination is warranted to formulate an informed opinion.16 Unfortunately, this typically occurs only if a patient refuses treatment or demands to be discharged before treatment has been completed, or there is a high level of risk to the patient or others after discharge.

In acute settings, when a patient consents to treatment, a psychiatric consultation regarding decisional capacity is rarely requested. While it is often tempting for medical or surgical teams to proceed with an intervention in a cooperative patient who willingly signs a consent form without a formal assessment of his/her decisional capacity, doing so raises challenging ethical and legal questions in the event of an adverse outcome. It is therefore prudent to strongly recommend that medical and surgical colleagues obtain a psychiatric consultation when an individual’s decisional capacity is uncertain, especially when a patient is known to have a psychiatric or neurocognitive disorder, or exhibits evidence of recent mental status changes. In cases of potentially reversible impairment (eg, delirium, psychosis, or acute anxiety), targeted interventions may help restore capacity and allow treatment to proceed.

No jurisdictions mandate that the determination of decisional capacity should be made exclusively by a mental health professional. Any treating health care professional (usually the attending physician) can make a determination of decisional capacity in scenarios where there is no overt evidence the patient has a mental or cognitive disorder and the patient is communicating clear and reasoned choices, or when a patient is profoundly impaired and no meaningful communication can take place.



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