Consent to medical treatment

One man died after refusing tests and medication

In Summary

• You can't be forced to seek treatment for a condition that only affects you

Hospital ward
Hospital ward

A sick person was taken to hospital to seek medical treatment. The doctors conducted a few tests but were unable to establish what was ailing him, so they had to conduct further tests. He was, however, given some medication to treat the symptoms he was showing.

The further tests involved procedures that he found to be harsh. As soon as he did the first test, he vehemently refused to undertake any other test. The pleas from doctors did little to change his mind. He left the hospital and went home.

While at home, he further decided not to continue taking medication. It was as though he had taken a path towards self-destruction. His feeding habits also deteriorated; he ate very little food and only when coerced to. He eventually succumbed to his illness.

Upon his death, some members of the family faulted his caregivers for not forcing him to get medical treatment. They thought the caregivers neglected him as, in their opinion, they should have forced him to go back to hospital. But, is it really possible to force someone to seek medical treatment?

As per the Health Act of 2017, patients have the final word regarding whether or not they want to be treated, and as to whether they want to undergo a certain treatment regiment. The general rule is that no service may be given to a patient without their consent. Notwithstanding this, there are instances where one can be treated without consent. These include where a patient is unable to grant such consent, in which case their next of kin or other person authorised by law can do so.

One may also be treated without their consent if failure to do so may cause death or irreversible damage to them, during an emergency and when failure to be treated poses a risk to members of the public. Minors have no capacity to give consent to treatment, so their parents or guardians do so on their behalf.

In giving consent, a patient must also have sufficient information to enable them to make an informed choice. The medical practitioner must inform them of their health status, the range of diagnostic and treatment options available as well as the benefits, risks associated with them and the costs. They should also be informed of the right to refusal and the possible implications of refusing to be treated.

Some people also write advance directives. These are instructions on what ought to be done in instances where they are incapacitated and cannot be consulted on decisions relating to their wellness.

In practice, however, doctors may at times disregard advance directives if they think it is possible to save a patient's life through a procedure they may have said they do not want to undergo. This is done with the risk of facing serious consequences should the procedure go wrong, or if the patient decides to file a suit.

Suffice to say, one cannot be forced to seek treatment for a medical condition that only affects them and poses no risk to other people. It is not uncommon to hear cases of people who refuse blood transfusion or decide to pray when sick instead of going to hospital. Such persons must have these wishes respected.

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