Informed consent—whether it be for psychotherapy, prescribing a medication, or performing a surgical procedure—is an ethical principle firmly established in law and medicine.
While there has been no formal research on this subject, my experience suggests that many addiction treatment programs fail to obtain valid informed consent. The starkest example occurs in the treatment of opioid addiction, where the practices and beliefs of clinicians often differ markedly from the evidence regarding effective treatments.
What is Informed Consent?
Informed consent refers to the collaborative process that a provider and patient go through to develop a treatment plan for the patient’s problems. This moral requirement is based on the principle of respecting a person’s autonomy, that is, their right “to hold views, to make choices, and to take actions based on their values and beliefs” (Beauchamp TL & Childress JF. Principles of Bio-medical Ethics, 7th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013:122–123).
Valid consent fulfills three criteria (Grimm DA, N M Law Rev 2007;37(1):39–83). First, the patient needs to have decision-making capacity. Capacity, in a medical context, refers to patients’ ability to understand information, appreciate their situation, use reason to make a decision, and communicate their choices (Applebaum PS, N Engl J Med 2007;357(18):1834–1840). This is referred to as the “capacity” criterion.
Second, the provider needs to present the full range of available treatment options based on current scientific knowledge. During this discussion, he or she needs to outline the risks and benefits of these various options and what could be reasonably expected if the patient declines treatment altogether. This is called the “disclosure” criterion.
Finally, valid consent requires that patients are free from coercion—that is, they are in a position to voluntarily choose any treatment option that they feel is best for them. This is described as the “voluntariness” criterion.
A provider has failed to obtain valid informed consent if any of these elements are missing.
Legal requirements for consent have evolved over centuries. Until relatively recently, courts used a physician-oriented point of view: the physician was required to provide information he or she felt was in the patient’s best interests. This resulted in practices such as informing a spouse, but not the patient, of a terminal disease. In other cases, providers deliberately omitted certain treatment options from their discussions with patients because of their personal beliefs or biases against them.
Through a series of court decisions, a new standard, the “reasonable person” or “prudent person” standard, emerged. Providers are now expected to present patients with information that a reasonable or prudent person would want to know in order to make healthcare decisions (Berg JW et al. Informed Consent: Legal Theory and Clinical Practice, 2d ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001:48).
In clinical practice, a provider is not allowed to withhold information from a patient based on his or her judgment that one treatment is better than another. The provider is thus required to present the scientific evidence supporting available treatment options, the expected outcomes of these various treatments, and the clinician’s recommendation for the patient and the rationale for it. This recommendation also needs to take into account any patient-specific features that factored into the provider’s decision-making.
This means that clinicians are legally obligated to provide information that they may prefer to withhold. The purpose of informed consent, however, is not to “conveniently promote a treatment plan; it requires informing patients with the recognition that they may disagree with a recommended treatment plan and retain the authority to do so” (Berg et al, op.cit).
There is also an important distinction between the actual process of obtaining autonomous authorization for a treatment or procedure and institutional requirements that patients sign informed consent documents. Patients frequently sign such documents in the absence of true informed consent (Beauchamp & Childress, op.cit).
Providers are obligated to summarize the scientific data concerning the effectiveness of various treatment options. The only treatment with consistent, strong evidence of effectiveness for opioid addiction is indefinite opioid maintenance therapy with either buprenorphine or methadone (Mattick RP et al, Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2014;2:CD002207).
Currently, the World Health Organization, US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, US Department of Health and Human Services, and many other agencies and organizations recommend methadone and buprenorphine maintenance as first-line treatments.
In contrast, there is no evidence commending drug-free (or so-called abstinence-based) treatments (Mayet S et al, Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2005;1:CD004330). Moreover, there is good evidence that psychosocial or intensive behavioral approaches fail to improve outcomes compared to minimal drug counseling in patients receiving opioid maintenance therapy (Amato L et al, Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011;10:CD004147; Fiellin DA et al, Am J Med 2013;126(1):74.e11–17).
Naltrexone is the only other medication that has been approved by the FDA for opioid addiction. Oral naltrexone (ReVia) is ineffective (Minozzi S et al, Cochrane Database Syst Rev 2011;4: CD001333) and the efficacy of extended-release, injectable naltrexone (Vivitrol) was established in just a single, industry-sponsored study conducted in Russia, where buprenorphine and methadone are not legally available (Krupitsky E et al, Lancet 2011;377(9776):1506–1513).
In addiction treatment, patients who are experiencing severe withdrawal symptoms may not have capacity due to pain and emotional distress. Other confounders include co-occurring mental disorders and cognitive impairment associated with prescribed medications and substances of abuse. Although beyond the scope of this article, simple bedside instruments allow providers to evaluate and easily document a patient’s decision-making capacity (Tunzi M, Am Fam Physician 2001;64(2):299–306).
Meeting the Disclosure Criterion
Providers need to have a clear understanding of available treatment options and the scientific evidence supporting each one, so they can meet their obligation concerning disclosure.
This article’s brief summary may serve as a starting point. Standard textbooks are also a ready source of such information (eg, Strain EC & Stitzer ML eds. The Treatment of Opioid Dependence. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). In addition, a number of plain language resources geared toward patients are available (eg, http://1.usa.gov/1ibCKou).
Providers need to present patients with more than their program’s philosophy or even the community standard of care. Remember, the standard for disclosure is what a reasonable or prudent patient would want to know, not a narrow presentation concerning usual care or the provider’s personal preferences. In the case of opioid addiction, this means summarizing the scientific data on the effectiveness of treatment options. This is a fiduciary duty that trumps the clinician’s personal preferences and their program’s philosophy of care.
Meeting the Voluntariness Criterion
Providers need to be very sensitive to overt, and more subtle covert, coercion when discussing treatment options with patients. Many people presenting for substance use treatment are subject to significant coercion from the legal system, employers, and families. Thus, we need to ensure that consent is truly voluntary and that we are not using coercion to impose our own views concerning treatment upon patients.
This ethical obligation may require advocating for a treatment option different than what a judge, probation officer, employer, or family prefers or recommends.
CATR’s Take: Addiction treatment has historically been very prescriptive and patients often had little choice about the care that they received. This article is a good reminder that providers have an affirmative duty to obtain informed consent and engage patients in shared decision-making.