Chemical Restraints and Patient Rights: an Ethical Issue

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In a secure psychiatric ward a psychotic patient has abruptly become violent shortly after his last scheduled dose of Ativan. It is three in the morning and the night shift nurse has a decision to make. Should she wake up the psychiatrist and request that he come and assess the patient, or should she administer the PRN medication of Zyprexa that the physician had previously authorized in the patient's chart? According to a strict interpretation of the published HCFA rules, chemical restraints or inappropriate use of medication is defined as "A medication used to control behavior or to restrict the patient's freedom of movement and is not a standard treatment for the patient's medical or psychological condition." It goes on to specifically mention that this would specifically include "No PRN orders" (Federal Register, 1999). If the nurse were to administer the Zyrexa in addition to the scheduled dose of Ativan, she would be using a form of chemical restraint and thus be trampling on the patient's rights. According to protocol, this could only be done if the patient was observed by a physician within an hour of the dispensing of the drug. Yet, how is one able to control the situation otherwise? Where do the rights of the patient as defined by law end and right of the clinicians to observe safety for them and the patient begin? It is a difficult question.

The moral considerations in this situation can have two directions. On one hand, there is the right of the patient to be protected from unnecessary chemical restraint by the use of multiple anti-psychotic drugs in various combinations that would result in him being totally in the control of the clinicians responsible for this care and therapy. On the other hand, those very clinicians have their own rights to protection from violence, as well as being able to discharge their duty to prevent the patient doing harm to himself. Balancing these two seemingly opposing moral directions can be tricky. The border of where the patient's rights end and true therapy begins is difficult to define. Morally, one can justify chemical restraint when the patient is capable of harming themselves or others; yet how that is determined, and who determines it, is critical. It would also be morally murky to shoot the patient full of drugs simply because they have become a behavioral nuisance and it would make the life of the attending nurse much easier.

This complicated situation has become much more difficult since the passage of law in 1998 called "Restraint and Seclusion: HCFA Rules for Hospitals". To understand its impact, one must understand the circumstances that prompted its hurried passage. In the 1980's there were a flurry of reports associated with the death of patients in restraints throughout the United States. A major Connecticut newspaper, the Courant, undertook an investigation that documented 23 deaths within an eleven month period from 1997 to 1998 (Weiss, 1998). A major public uproar ensued that resulted in enormous pressure on politicians to immediately produce results that would alleviate the issue. The resulting hastily assembled legislation; "Restraint and Seclusion: HCFA Rules for Hospitals", caused a sensation in the national psychiatric hospital community. The new rules specified, among other things, that any patient put in restraints had to be seen within one hour of doing so by a psychiatrist (Moore, 1999). Many small rural hospitals could not comply because such a physician was not within an hour's reach. The American Hospital Association sued to halt the new rules, but lost in the courts. Before the new law, it was possible for a registered nurse to make legal decisions regarding restraints; now this was forever lost. It rapidly became obvious that if the strict application of these new regulations would result in a paralysis of the existing system. The solution around this came in the form of the PRN order which allowed chemical as opposed to physical...
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