Covert treatment raises a number of ethical and practical issues in psychiatry. Viewpoints differ from the standpoint of psychiatrists, caregivers, ethicists, lawyers, neighbours, human rights activists and patients. There is little systematic research data on its use but it is quite certain that there is relatively widespread use. The veil of secrecy around the procedure is due to fear of professional censure. Whenever there is a veil of secrecy around anything, which is aided and abetted by vociferous opposition from some sections of society, the result is one of two: 1) either the activity goes underground or 2) it is reluctantly discarded, although most of those who used it earlier knew it was needed. Covert treatment has the dubious distinction of suffering both such secrecy and disapproval.
Covert treatment has a number of advantages and disadvantages in psychotic disorders. The advantages are that it helps solve practical clinical problems; prevents delays in starting treatment, which is associated with clinical risks and substantial costs; prevents risk of self-destructive behaviour and/or physical assault by patient; prevents relapse; and prevents demoralization of staff. The disadvantages are that it maybe used with malafide intent by caregivers with or without the complicity of psychiatrists; it may be used to force conformity in dissenters; and the clinician may land himself in legal tangles even with its legitimate use. In addition, it may prevent insight, encourage denial, promote unhealthy practices in the treating staff and prevent understanding of why noncompliance occurs in the first place.
Some support its use in dementia and learning disorders but oppose it in schizophrenia. The main reason is that uncooperative patients of schizophrenia (and related psychoses) are considered to be those who refuse treatment but retain capacity; while in dementia and severe learning disorder, uncooperative patients are those who lack capacity. This paper disputes this contention by arguing that although uncooperative patients of schizophrenia (and related psychoses) apparently retain capacity, it is limited, in fact distorted, since they lack insight. It presents the concept of insight-unconsciousness in a patient of psychosis. Just as an unconscious patient has to be given covert medical/surgical treatment, similarly an insight-unconscious patient with one of the different psychoses (in the acute phase or otherwise) may also have to be given covert treatment till he regains at least partial insight. It helps control psychotic symptoms and assists the patient in regaining enough insight to realize he needs treatment. Another argument against covert treatment is that people with schizophrenia have the capacity to learn and therefore can learn that they are required to take medications, but if medications are given covertly it may well fuel their paranoia. However, it should be noted that the patient who has lack of insight cannot learn unless he regains that insight, and he may need covert treatment to facilitate this process. Covert treatment can fuel the paranoia, true, but it can also control the psychotic symptoms sufficiently so that regular treatment can be initiated. In a patient who refuses to accept that he is sick and when involuntary commitment is not an option to be considered, covert treatment is the only option, apart from physical restraint. Ultimately, a choice has to be made between a larger beneficence (control of symptoms and start of therapy) and a smaller malevolence (necessary therapy, but without the patient's knowledge and consent).
A number of practical clinical scenarios are outlined wherein the psychiatrist should adopt covert treatment in the best interests of the patient. Ethical issues of autonomy, power, secrecy and malafide intent arise; each of these can be countered only by non-malfeasance (above all, do no harm) under the overarch of beneficence (even above that, dare to care). An advance directive with health care proxy that sanctions covert treatment is presented. Questions raised by the practical clinical scenarios are then answered.
The conclusions are as follows: covert treatment, i.e, temporary treatment without knowledge and consent, is seldom needed or justified. But, where needed, it remains an essential weapon in the psychiatrist's armamentarium: to be used cautiously but without guilt or fear of censure. However, the psychiatrist must use it very judiciously, in the rarest of rare cases, provided: i) he is firmly convinced that it is needed for the welfare of the patient; ii) it is the only option available to tide over a crisis; iii) continuing efforts are made to try and get the patient into regular psychiatric care; iv) the psychiatrist makes it clear that its use is only as a stop-gap; v) he is always alert to the chances of malevolence inherent in such a process and keeps away from conniving or associating with anything even remotely suspicious; and vi) he takes due precautions to ensure that he does not land into legal tangles later.
The need of the hour is to explore in greater detail the need and justification for covert treatment, to lay out clear and firm parameters for its legitimate use, follow it up with standard literature and, finally, to establish clinical practice guidelines by unconflicted authors.
The term “covert treatment” is preferable to “surreptitious prescribing”; they should not be used synonymously, the latter term being reserved for those cases where there is malafide intent.