Informed Consent in Plain Language

Keep this information in mind next time you’re asked to agree to treatment.

When it comes to protecting your rights as a patient, few concepts are as powerful as informed consent. Unfortunately, informed consent is greatly misunderstood. Knowing your rights related to informed consent will allow you to make decisions about your health with full knowledge and confidence. This article will clarify the main components of informed consent to help you be a strong advocate for your own health.
Woman behind a computer screen displaying the words "Informed Consent"In a Nutshell: What Is Informed Consent?
If asked about informed consent, you may think of signing a form giving your doctor permission to perform a treatment. But, informed consent is much more than a simple signature—it’s a process that involves three components:

  1. You are included in decisions on how to proceed with your treatment.
  2. Your doctor has provided transparent information about your treatment options.
  3. You have the capacity to make decisions to support your best interests.

Informed consent begins with your doctor sharing the following essential information with you:

  • The details of your diagnosis
  • The recommended treatment (the details of the treatment, benefits, and risks)
  • Alternative options to the recommended treatment (including the details of the treatments, benefits, and risks)
  • The risks and benefits you face by not moving forward with a treatment.

Did you know? Some patients believe it violates informed consent when the doctor provides a treatment recommendation, as opposed to simply presenting all the options available. However, it’s your doctor’s professional obligation to give a recommendation based on his or her expertise and knowledge of your case. If your doctor recommends a treatment, don’t assume it’s bias—it’s simply best medical practice.

The Legal Standard: It Depends Where You Live
Informed consent is hardly a black and white concept, especially when you consider that each state in the United States has its own informed consent laws. While laws vary from state to state, one aspect that is mandated across the board is that doctors who don’t get a patient’s informed consent when it’s required face medical malpractice charges. To help protect against potential litigation, your doctor will document each informed consent discussion he or she has with you.

Among the most challenging aspects of informed consent is about how much doctors need to disclose about a procedure. States will typically either use a legal standard of what a “reasonable” doctor would share or what a “reasonable” patient would need to know, but that’s very much open to interpretation. Most state laws say that doctors need to disclose all the significant risks of a procedure, as it would be difficult—if not impossible—for a doctor to share every possible complication or side effect.

Did you know? The consent form you sign approving treatment fulfills hospital or facility policy—it isn’t typically required by federal or state laws (though state and federal laws mandate signatures for a few select procedures). As such, signed consent forms might not be enough to protect a doctor in court.

What Procedures Require Informed Consent?
Like the legality of informed consent, the procedures that require it vary across state lines. Health care facilities also have their own list of treatments that require informed consent, so just because one hospital asks for informed consent doesn’t mean a different health system on the other side of town will require it for the exact same procedure.

If you’re undergoing a series of treatments over a long period of time, you may only be asked to sign one consent form—provided the treatments support the original purpose explained during your informed consent process. In other words, if your condition changes half-way through your course of treatment, your doctor should discuss these changes with you, and you will likely need to sign a new consent form.

On that same note, if you receive treatments performed by different providers, each provider should provide you a consent form for each treatment. Each distinct treatment comes with its own unique set of risks and benefits that you should be fully aware of before undergoing the procedure.

Did you know? Informed consent isn’t just necessary for the most complex and complicated of situations; it may be required for even low-risk treatments.

When Does My Informed Consent Expire?
Like so much with informed consent, the length of time a patient’s informed consent is valid varies by state and by health care institution. Since there is no national standard for how long informed consent is valid, make sure you understand the specific policies of your health care facility.

Did you know? Informed consent expiration runs a wide spectrum based on where you receive care. Some facilities say signed informed consent forms are valid for 30 days, or the duration of the patient’s hospital stay. Others state that a patient’s informed consent is active until a patient revokes it, or the patient’s condition changes.

Can I Change My Mind After I’ve Given My Informed Consent?
Signing an informed consent document does not mean you give up your rights to change your mind: You can decide to stop treatment at any time, even if you’ve already started it.

If you are no longer comfortable with a procedure, tell your doctor. The health care facility may ask you to sign a new form expressing your wishes not to receive treatment.

Did you know? Most informed consent forms state that you can change your mind anytime. But, if the form you signed doesn’t clearly note this, you still have the right to revoke your consent.

A Word on Children’s Informed Consent
Generally, minors are not allowed to give informed consent for their own medical procedures. A minor is any person under the age of 18.

While minors may not have the legal right to sign the informed consent form in most cases (their parents or legal guardian will be asked to sign the document), they are still an essential part of the informed consent process. Assuming the child is developmentally able to comprehend the situation, the health care facility may ask to receive the minor’s assent to a treatment.

Assent means the child receives easy-to-understand information on his or her condition and the recommended treatment, and is asked to agree to the treatment. This helps the child feel more involved and acknowledged in the decision-making process.

Did you know? Research shows many minors as young as age 12 can grasp the consequences of their health care decisions. You may feel compelled to shield your children from the full gravity of their medical situation, but including them may empower them to be better engaged in their own health.

3 Exceptions to Informed Consent
Three conditions must be met before a doctor may treat a patient without obtaining informed consent:

  1. The patient must be experiencing a life-threatening health issue that requires immediate treatment.
  2. The patient cannot speak or act on their own behalf, and no other family or surrogate is available.
  3. A “reasonable” person would agree to the treatment.

Did you know? Just because a situation is an emergency doesn’t mean informed consent isn’t necessary. Unless the situation fits the emergency conditions above, doctors still need to obtain consent from patients who call 911 or use an ambulance.

Informed Consent: Your Body and Your Rights
Being faced with major health care decisions can be overwhelming. To reduce your stress and help you feel comfortable moving forward, listen to your doctor and ask as many questions as you need to get a full picture of your options (bring a list of questions to your appointments to make sure you cover everything). Remember, it’s not just your consent but your informed consent that matters. If you’d like to learn more about your rights as a patient, read our articles on your rights at the hospital and your rights to a second opinion.

Updated on: 05/10/17
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