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Granting "Informed Consent"

Generally speaking, doctors must gain the informed consent of their patients before pursuing a course of treatment. Informed consent means that the patient agrees to the treatment after having been informed of the potential risks and consequences. The reality of consent in the medical field is often murkier than this definition might imply.

The meaning of "informed"

Many professional fields are cloaked with jargon. If a doctor hands the patient a consent form filled with a combination of medical and legal jargon, is that patient "informed?" Doctors may describe the procedure in ways that no one but another doctor in the same medical discipline would have any hope of understanding. Still, the doctor can argue that the patient is technically informed, even if that patient has no real understanding of the treatment or its potential risks. 

Patients and doctors are both in a position to understand just how much information has been conveyed to gain the necessary consent. If you don't understand the procedure, it's potential complications, the alternative treatments and other pertinent details, it is up to you to either withhold consent or do the work necessary to gain the knowledge you need. Doctors are happy to move on to the next patient once they have secured your consent, regardless of your level of understanding. You should not expect a doctor to work very hard to make sure you know what you are agreeing to.

What to do

There are several steps you can take to gain the information you need. You should feel free to do any or all of the following:

  • Ask for an explanation in plain language - Jargon is not your problem. You have every right to ask for an explanation that doesn't require you to have a medical degree to figure it out.
  • Know your odds - What is the most likely outcome of the treatment? What is the worst possible outcome? What is the best possible outcome? How likely are each of these outcomes? You can't make an educated decision if you have no idea what to expect from your treatment.
  • Bring an advocate - Asking the right questions and making notes of the answers can be a challenge. It is much easier to ask tough questions and write down the answers if you have a friend or loved one with you to serve as your advocate.
  • Make sure you are on the same page - Once you think you understand the suggested treatment, repeat it back to your doctor in your terms to make sure your understanding is correct.
  • Don't be afraid to ask for more information - Hospitals can often put you in touch with other patients who have undergone the suggested treatment. They may be able to provide you with written accounts or other information that will give you a better understanding of what to expect.

Your doctor will not botch your treatment because you asked too many questions. However impatient or irritated doctors appear by your questions, it is your life and health at stake. You should not consent to treatment you don't understand. The only consent worth granting is informed consent.

Source: The New York Times, "Informed Patient? Don't Bet On It," by Mikkael A. Sekeres, M.D. and Timothy D. Gilligan, M.D., 1 March 2017 

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