Limits of remote working: the ethical challenges in conducting Mental Health Act assessments during COVID-19

Journal of Medical Ethics 47 (9):603-607 (2021)
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Abstract

COVID-19 has created additional challenges in mental health services, including the impact of social distancing measures on care and treatment. For situations where a detention under mental health legislation is required to keep an individual safe, psychiatrists may consider whether to conduct an assessment in person or using video technology. The Mental Health Act 2003 does not stipulate that an assessment has to be conducted in person. Yet, the Code of Practice envisions that detention assessments would be conducted face to face in all circumstances. During the pandemic, the Mental Welfare Commission for Scotland, a statutory body with a duty to promote best practice of the Act, has been asked whether it may be acceptable and indeed preferable for some assessments to be conducted via video technology. Where an assessment is needed to determine if a patient needs to be detained, and where there is a need for social distancing or the need for ‘shielding’, remote assessments may in some circumstances be preferable. In this article, we outline the modification of the Mental Welfare Commission’s previous outright rejection of virtual assessments as the pandemic progressed and discuss the ethical and legal issues the possibility of remote assessments has exposed. We also discuss the limits and when a virtual assessment is not considered ethical. As the pandemic moves from a state of emergency into a ‘new normal’ in psychiatric services during second, or subsequent, waves, the use and place of remote assessments for detention needs to be considered.

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Mayura Deshpande
University of Warwick

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