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FAIRBANKS - The Alaska Supreme Court has made it harder for doctors to force medication on psychiatric patients.
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The ruling stems from a case in which a woman with schizophrenia sued after she was forced to take medication at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage in 2003.
"It makes all of my suffering worthwhile," said appellant Faith Myers.
The Supreme Court ruling says that before a person can be forced to take mind-altering drugs, a lower court must first find that the medication is in a patient's best interest and second find that no less intrusive option exists.
The court considered opinions out of Massachusetts, New York, Minnesota and Ohio in coming to its decision that the right to refuse psychotropic drugs is fundamental.
"We conclude that the Alaska Constitution's guarantees of liberty and privacy require an independent judicial determination of an incompetent mental patient's best interests before the superior court may authorize a facility like API to treat the patient with psychotropic drugs," the ruling states.
Myers sued to prevent the hospital from forcing her to ingest psychotropic drugs. Myers had weaned herself from the medication two years prior, believing the drugs made her mental illness worse.
Once committed, Myers refused to discuss treatment options with doctors, who petitioned the court to allow them to medicate her without her consent. The doctors won. Myers appealed but was released from the psychiatric hospital before receiving the drugs, rendering her appeal moot.
The Alaska Supreme Court took up the issue anyway, citing the need to decide the matter in the interest of public policy.
The central question cited in the court's ruling was under what circumstances may doctors force medication on patients in non-emergency situations.
The chief executive officer of the Alaska Psychiatric Institute said his hospital has already been moving in the direction of the court's opinion. API is the only state-run psychiatric hospital in Alaska and the largest psychiatric hospital seeing between 1,200 and 1,400 admissions a year.
"The only change for us is going to be that when our medical staff believes it's in the best interest of a patient to have court-ordered administration of medication. We are going to have to demonstrate compelling evidence that alternatives have been tried and failed," said Ron Adler, chief executive officer for the Alaska Psychiatric Institute.
Since 2002, the number of API patients forced to undergo drug treatment has dropped, going from 145 to 57 this fiscal year, which ended June 30.
Adler said it's important to remember that psychotropic drugs are a humane treatment for many seriously ill psychiatric patients, who often refuse the drugs because of their illness.
"People are suffering when they are that ill," Adler said. "People are tormented either by voices or by severe depression. It's the right thing to do to alleviate that suffering."
Information from: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, http://www.newsminer.com