I am a third year nursing student, currently writing an assignment on Law and Ethics, particularly refusing to treat intoxicated patients.

I am looking for case studies relating to health professionals refusing to treat intoxicated patients.

influencing factors I have found are:

  • Duty of care Capacity and consent
  • Mental Health
  • Calming the patient
  • Hospital Security
  • Sedation to prevent harm to themselves or others

The question I am looking to answer is, does a health professional ever have the right to refuse to treat an intoxicated patient or would a refusal of treatment always be seen as negligence? All the research I have carried out so far has given me no definitive answers.

  • 2
    Welcome to health SE :-). Your research is probably extensive, but it would be great if you could link or list at least 1 or 2 studies you found, to give us a starting point. This is not a question about health per se, but it is a rather interesting one for health professionals.
    – Lucky
    Dec 4, 2016 at 14:24

1 Answer 1


If there's a field of medicine that deals with this issue more than any other, it's emergency medical services. Drunks are a daily staple for them, even in "nice" communities. So the following is based on my previous EMS training.

It is always unethical not to do an adequate medical assessment, but that doesn't mean you have to treat the thing they're complaining about.

First, if they're heavily intoxicated then that means they cannot give informed consent. They are not considered mentally competent to make health care decisions under US case law; I expect it's similar in other western countries. So they became your responsibility the minute you recognized their mental incompetence (failing to recognize it is just as bad).

Second, if they're intoxicated then that can mask and/or mimic other concurrent issues. Refusing to at least examine and rule out other problems is therefore negligence. More than one police department has paid a heavy price for jailing "drunks" who were in fact diabetics in insulin shock. Intoxication also dulls pain, so even their own pain assessments can't be trusted.

Finally, how intoxicated are they? Remember, being intoxicated means they are your legal and ethical responsibility. Until you've done an adequate assessment to determine that they are mentally competent and not suffering from concealed problems, refusing care will most likely be judged negligence by both medical and legal authorities.

Intoxicated people (by any substance) are the quickest ticket known to loss of license and negligence suits.

  • Implied consent. I think in my area we have to treat/transport intoxicated pts. to be cleared in the ER before going to jail (or admitted etc.).
    – L.B.
    Dec 4, 2016 at 20:10
  • 2
    @L.B. Yes, they do fall under implied consent as soon as you determine they're too intoxicated to be mentally competent, but that just puts the responsibility for their welfare even more so on the caregiver.
    – Carey Gregory
    Dec 4, 2016 at 21:58

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