A patient’s irrational refusal to take medication can be frustrating for the nurse. Crushing the pill into applesauce or ice cream saves time and effort, and spares the patient the aggravation of quarreling. But while hiding medication is sometimes ethically justified, often it is not.

That’s the start of the “Putting the Meds in the Applesauce,” an article (free for March) by nurse ethicist Douglas Olsen in the current issue of AJN. Olsen notes that studies suggest hiding medications in food may be a relatively common practice, considers the ethical principles at play in such a decision, and offers advice for those who may be considering it. (Added: The column chiefly concerns the nursing care of cognitively impaired patients—not those who simply don’t want medications or those with with psychiatric illnesses who may be endangering themselves or others by refusing medication.)

Says Olsen, “

[t]wo factors must be considered in determining whether hiding medication is justified or not: the nurse–patient relationship and the patient’s rights.” He adds that such a decision “requires the nurse and surrogate decision maker to imagine how the patient might have reasoned: would the earlier, cognitively intact patient have agreed that, given the present impairment, the providers shouldn’t be morally bound to accept the patient’s decision to decline medication?”

Another question he suggests asking oneself is this: “could the deception survive public scrutiny, including that of professional peers?”

What’s your take? What’s your experience?—JM, senior editor

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