Risk and patient choice

It's hard enough to assess for suicidal risk, interview, reach a formulation, and develop a plan that matches the risk level. But what do you do when the client does not agree to the plan? It is difficult to manage one's emotions, and difficult to know how to proceed. This is especially true when the recommended plan involves a higher level of care. Do you continue to work with the person in a setting that you have judged inadequate for the needs, or do you somehow insist or refuse to work with the person? How do you ddocument around these decisions?

Here are some initial thoughts I have about this unbelievably challenging clinical dilemma. I hope to articulate more principles and recommendations in future posts and papers, and would love to hear other clinicians' ideas.

1. Articulate and document the rationale for recommendation AND for the treatment decision you make. For example: "I recommended partial hospitalization because the daily therapeutic contact, extensive group work, and focus on stabilization fit Mr. X's needs in this case. I offered this recommendation to Mr. X and explained the potential benefits and risks of following this recommendation. I also explained the substantial risk I see in not pursuing this level of care at this time."

2. Respect the client's freedom, and avoid a power struggle. Most power struggles are born of anxiety. We sometimes do have totake coercive courses of action to protect a patient's safety, but many times we twist patients' arm to manage our anxiety more than their safety. This is not a black-and-white/either-or issue. We do need to honor our boundaries, our ethical/legal obligations, and have a level of comfort in order to work with someone. At the same time, clients with intact cognition (i.e, not psychotic or otherwise impaired from making rational decisions) and who are not at truly imminent risk need to have some latitude about the treatment they agree to participate in. Before drawing a line in the sand, we should be clear (and be able to articulate) why drawing that line is necessary for the patient and for the treatment.

3. If you decide to respect a client's choice that goes counter to your recommendation (a la #2), document the clinical reasons why. If Mr. X refuses my recommendation to go to a higher level of care, I might write: "Mr. X refused the offer of partial hospital; he wishes to continue weekly therapy but agrees to nothing more. I agreed to continue to see him outpatient because (a) our alliance is strong and is a protective factor, (b) Mr. X has benefited from outpatient treatment, even though his acuity level makes him more appropriate for partial, (c) he is not in imminent danger, and (d) Mr. X's cognition is grossly intact; his thought process is logical and coherent, and he is judged to have capacity to make decisions about the treatment he wishes." I'm sure this is not a perfect note (and I'd be happy to hear from others about what you might write), but it captures some of the key elements that I think should be documented.