Involuntary admission for psychiatric treatment: Compliance with the law and legal considerations in referring physicians with different professional backgrounds

Int J Law Psychiatry. May-Jun 2019;64:142-149. doi: 10.1016/j.ijlp.2019.03.005. Epub 2019 Apr 4.


Background: Involuntary admission (IA) for psychiatric treatment is a massive restriction of human rights. Therefore, its execution is regulated by law. During executing IAs referring physicians find themselves in a dual role: support of patients in the recovery process but also safe-keeper of society. In Zurich, Switzerland the law stipulates that physicians regardless of their medical specialization may admit patients who suffer from a mental disorder, mental disability or severe neglect involuntarily if care cannot be provided otherwise, regardless of their decision-making capacity. The referring physician is obliged to examine the patients, hear their views on the IA, inform them about the following steps and about their right of appeal at the civil court. We aimed to assess whether referring physicians can comply with those legal requirements for an IA. Additionally, we examined whether legal considerations differed according to the physicians` professional backgrounds and attitudes towards coercion in general.

Methods: We invited physicians from different in- and outpatient settings who executed IAs to the University Hospital of Psychiatry Zurich to participate in a newly developed online survey. We used correlation analysis, chi-square and t-tests to analyze the responses of 43 psychiatrists with those of 64 other physicians.

Results: In about 1/3 of the IAs referring physicians were not able to hear the patients' views on the IA, to inform the patients about the following steps and about their right of appeal. Psychiatrists felt more certain with the legal basis of IA compared to physicians other than psychiatrists. Nevertheless, the latter stated that the assessment of the risk for suicide and danger should not be restricted only to psychiatrists. Both groups differed in their attitudes towards coercion with psychiatrists being more critical.

Conclusions: Interventions should be developed to facilitate a compliance with legal requirements during IA. Physicians who execute IAs must have a thorough knowledge of the clinical and legal basis for their actions. We recommend specialized consultation teams for the assessment of PES and regular training including ethical discussions, especially for physicians other than psychiatrists.

Keywords: Coercion; Involuntary admission; Legislation; Psychiatric emergency situation; Psychiatry.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Involuntary Commitment / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Male
  • Mental Disorders / diagnosis
  • Mental Disorders / therapy*
  • Middle Aged
  • Physicians / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Psychiatry / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Referral and Consultation / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Switzerland