What is “informed consent” for patients? Why is it so important?

Many patients have a somewhat lopsided relationship with their doctors. Some doctors walk into a room, listen to the patient’s complaints, do a quick exam and order treatment — without consulting the patient first. Many patients expect this kind of behavior and accept it. After all, what do they know about medicine, right?

Well, that’s wrong. Patients should expect their doctors to involve them in any treatment decisions — primarily because they’re the ones affected by those decisions, not the doctor. Because patients are not medical experts, doctors are required to make sure that patients have informed consent before treatment begins. Informed consent means that a patient has been given enough data about all the possible benefits — and all the possible risks — of a treatment to decide if he or she wants to proceed.

What does it take for a patient to have the requisite knowledge to make that informed consent? According to the American Medical Association (AMA), patients need to know the following:

  • Their diagnosis — or, at least why the doctor is recommending this course of treatment if the diagnosis isn’t known
  • Exactly what procedure or treatment is being proposed
  • What alternatives they have
  • What benefits the treatment could bring
  • What risks or side effects the treatment could also have
  • The same for any proposed alternatives
  • What could happen if the patient elects not to proceed with treatment

Many people don’t realize they have a right to this information. Nor do they realize that they can refuse or even stop treatment anytime they want — even if the doctor advises against it.

The only time that isn’t true is if the patient has a mental impairment (including due to intoxication or dementia) that affects his or her decision-making processes. In those cases, the doctor has to try to get the consent of a family member before proceeding, if one is available and it isn’t an emergency.

Informed consent recognizes your right to control your own body — and the failure to get it is not only considered medical malpractice, but it can also even be considered a crime. Failing to get informed consent before subjecting a patient to an invasive procedure or a drug that can hurt him or her is actually no different than battery — and patients have a right to seek compensation with the help of an attorney for that kind of assault.

Source: Forbes, “Not All Doctors Get Informed Consent — Here’s Why It’s Hurting Patients,” Nichole Bazemore, accessed April 18, 2018

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