Informed consent and incompetent medical patients

UMMS Affiliation

Department of Psychiatry

Publication Date


Document Type



Aged; *Decision Making; Disabled Persons; Disclosure; Female; Humans; Informed Consent; Judicial Role; Male; Mental Disorders; *Mental Health; Middle Aged; United States


Behavior and Behavior Mechanisms | Psychiatry | Psychiatry and Psychology


The mentally incapacitated patient is frequently encountered in the general medical hospital. Incapacity is the clinical state in which a patient is unable to participate in a meaningful way in medical decisions. Mentally incapacitated patients relinquish the authority, that is the competent patient's right, to choose among professionally acceptable alternative treatments. Such patients, therefore, require a surrogate decision-maker. There are certain clinical situations in which questions of incapacity are especially important to consider. In a study for the President's Commission for the Study of Ethical Problems in Medical Biomedical and Behavioral Research, the most common problem in recognizing incapacity was found with previously capable patients who became transiently incapacitated during the course of hospitalization. Questions of incapacity or the authority of surrogate decision-makers also arose with comatose, mentally retarded, mentally ill, and physically handicapped patients. While standards to determine capacity remain unclear, a practical approach is to demonstrate that a patient is able to describe the physician's view of the situation and to understand the physician's opinion as to the best intervention. When a patient is deemed to be incapacitated, the physician should turn to family members, whenever possible, to make decisions.


J Fam Pract. 1985 Mar;20(3):273-9.

Journal/Book/Conference Title

The Journal of family practice

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