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.




The emergency physician requests a psychi­atric consultation. You assess Ms. B’s decisional capacity using the Mac-CAT-T along with a standard psychiatric evaluation. Her score of 14 reflects that she is able to understand the risks associated with her opioid use, and although irritated by engaging in such a discussion, is capable of reasoning through the various medical and psychosocial aspects of her addiction, and shows moderate appreciation of the impact of her choices on her future and that of significant others. The psychiatric evaluation fails to elicit any substantial mood, anxiety, or psychotic disorders associated with/or resulting from her addiction, and her cognitive examination is within normal limits. She does not exhibit severe withdrawal and is not delirious on examination. Finally, she did not harbor thoughts of intentional harm to self or others and is not deemed imminently dangerous.

You document that in your opinion, despite Ms. B’s unfortunate choices and questionable judgment, she does have the capacity to make informed decisions regarding her care and could be released against medical advice if she so chooses, while providing her with information about available resources should she decide to seek rehabilitation in the future.

An increasingly common scenario

Decisional capacity assessment in patients with SUDs is an increasingly common reason for psychiatric consultations. Primary and secondary conditions related to substance use can affect a patient’s decisional capacity on a temporary or permanent basis. The same principles that guide the assessment of decisional capacity in patients with other psychiatric or cognitive disorders should be applied to compromised individuals with SUDs. In challenging cases, a skilled psychiatric evaluation that is supported by a thorough cognitive examination and, when required, complemented by a legal or ethical consultation, can help clinicians make safe and judicious decisions.

Bottom Line

Assessing the decisional capacity of a patient with a substance use disorder can be challenging. Primary or secondary conditions related to substance use can affect a patient’s decisional capacity on a temporary or permanent basis. A skilled psychiatric evaluation that includes a thorough cognitive examination and is complemented by legal or ethical consultation can help in making judicious decisions.

Related Resources

Drug Brand Names

Alprazolam • Xanax
Naloxone nasal spray • Narcan


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