Health Care

Health Care-Tell Me About It: Informed Consent

"Informed consent" is a legal term describing your level of understanding when authorizing a certain activity or procedure. It's most commonly used for medical treatment, and it's more than your signature on a consent form.

The Basics

In a nutshell, informed consent means that before you agree to or authorize a specific activity or procedure, you're given all the information and time you need to make an intelligent and knowing decision. When it comes to medical treatment, informed consent is a process you and your doctor go through where:

  • The proposed treatment or procedure is explained to you in easy-to-understand terms and why your doctor thinks it's necessary
  • All of the possible benefits and risks of the treatment are explained to you
  • You're told about any options or alternatives available to you, including refusing any treatment at all, as well as the possible risks and benefits of the alternative treatments or refusal of all treatment
  • You're given the chance to ask questions and get meaningful answers you can understand
  • You're given time to talk to your family or another health care provider about the proposed treatment and/or alternatives

Usually, after you get this information and time to think and you agree to the procedure or treatment, you'll be asked to sign a consent form. This form gives the doctor permission to continue with the treatment, and it usually, contains the same information about the procedure, options, risks, benefits, etc., as explained by your doctor.

Technically, the form itself is not your informed consent. The informed consent is the process outlined above. Your signature on the consent form is your acknowledgement that you were given all of the information and time you needed to make an intelligent decision.

As a practical matter, though, you and your doctor don't necessarily have to have face-to-face conversation. It's possible you may get a general description of the procedure from your doctor and you'll be given a consent form explaining form the procedure, options, risks, and benefits. You should be given time to read the form, think about it, ask questions, and talk to your family before signing it.

Who Can Give It?

Only adults of sound mind can give informed consent. Minors - typically children under 18 years old - and people with mental disabilities can't give informed consent. In these cases, a parent or legal guardian must give informed consent.

When Needed

Practically every state has laws on informed consent when it comes to medical treatment, and these laws may vary a great deal from state to state. In general, though, informed consent is needed before patients undergo major surgeries and special treatment courses, such as chemotherapy or other cancer-related. Also, federal laws require informed consent before patients enter a clinical or medical trial receiving federal funding.

Informed consent isn't needed in certain medical situations, though, such as when there's isn't a "treatment" or "procedure" involved, or where it's assumed your consent is given. For example, informed consent isn't needed when:

  • Your doctor takes your blood pressure or listens to your heart when you visit the office for a check-up. Technically, neither action is treatment or procedure, and in any event, it's assumed you agreed to such things by going to the doctor voluntarily
  • There's an emergency. Your consent is assumed when an medical treatment is needed to save your life and you're unable to give consent

Ask These Questions

Many things should be covered when you're asked for informed consent, but don't hesitate to ask any questions about:

  • Details on your diagnosis
  • The usual treatment or procedure, alternatives, and the risks and benefits of any treatment
  • Possible Side-effects
  • How long the treatment lasts or how long the recovery period is
  • How much the treatment or procedure costs and if it's covered by insurance

If you and your doctor take the time to go through the process carefully, you'll be able to make a sound a decision about your health care options.

Questions for Your Attorney

  • Do I automatically have a medical malpractice case if there was no informed consent?
  • I'm suffering from a side effect I wasn't told about before my treatment. Can I file a lawsuit even if there was informed consent about other side effects, risks, etc?
  • My husband suffered serious injuries because of a mistake by an anesthesiologist. Does the informed consent form I husband signed for the doctor protect the anesthesiologist, too?

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