Covert Medications: Act of Compassion or Conspiracy of Silence?


Robert C. Macauley


      As the population in the United States gets older, more people suffer from dementia, which often causes neuropsychiatric symptoms such as agitation and paranoia. This can lead patients to refuse medications, prompting consideration of covert administration (that is, concealing medication in food or drink). While many condemn this practice as paternalistic, deceptive, and potentially harmful, the end result of assuming the “moral high ground” can be increased suffering for patients and families. This article addresses common criticisms of covert medication and presents a detailed algorithm by which to determine whether the practice is ethically permissible in specific cases. It also explores why so little attention has been paid in the U.S. to this presumably common practice, and reviews professional statements from Europe that endorse the practice. Finally, it presents a compelling argument for the role of Ulysses clauses in advance care planning, not only for patients with psychiatric illness but also for those who may suffer from dementia, which is far more common.


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