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Can Patients Refuse Medical Treatment? You'd Think So, But...

By January 8, 2012

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A woman named Sheryl (not her real name) contacted me recently with a question that seemed rather simple on its face, and turned out to be far more complex.

She is 60 years old, and has a terminal disease, for which treatment will be debilitating and possibly painful. She has no family to help her, and very little money. She asked me whether she could refuse treatment and live out her days focused on the quality of the time she has left, rather than the quantity of extra days that treatment would be intended to supply.

Seems fairly simple. In the United States, we have a right to refuse treatment. Except....

It turns out not all of us DO have that right. There are exceptions to that right, based on whether or not someone is receiving financial assistance, either through workers' compensation or disability payments. If their income is being subsidized while they are hurt or ill, then they may not have the right to refuse treatment.

I never knew that until I began to research it. Sheryl had found references to that inability to refuse - because yes, Sheryl receives Social Security Disability payments each month. There are a few other extenuating circumstances, too - so we came up with a probable answer for her, and now she will pursue more answers from others who might have them. Bottom line, it looks like she may be able to choose not to have treatment, as she prefers.

Patients' rights in the United States may not be what you think they are. You can learn more about them here:

Patients' Rights in the United States

Do Patients Have the Right to Refuse Medical Treatment?

How to Make the Decision to Refuse Medical Treatment

Exceptions to the Right-to-Refuse Medical Treatment

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Agree? Disagree?
Share your experience or join the conversation!


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Photo Dmitriy Shironosov / 123RF

January 10, 2012 at 1:19 pm
(1) Daniel Beegan says:

I receive SS disability payments as well. If I were in a situation where radiation and/or chemo would only give me a few months more to live in some discomfort, I would opt for hospice care if I am allowed to do so.

I would want palliative care, including nutrition and hydration and I am personally absolutely opposed to euthanasia. But refusing heroic measures is not euthanasia, and should be our right.

May 28, 2013 at 11:53 am
(2) Alan says:

As long as the patient is competent they can refuse anything they wish and there is nothing that anyone can do about it. This is just another attempted scam from so called professionals to coerce people into doing things they do not want. If they attempt to force treatment, take them to court for false imprisonment and battery, as well as the GMC.

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