What Is Medical Consent? (Simple Ethics Guide)

Updated on: December 3, 2023
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Written By Dr Ollie

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The process of obtaining consent involves healthcare professionals, such as doctors or nurses, providing a clear explanation of the proposed medical treatment to the patient.

This empowers individuals to make well-informed decisions about their care, ensuring they fully understand the potential benefits, risks, and alternative options.

Informed consent goes beyond a simple agreement; it is an exchange of ideas that strengthens the patient-physician relationship, fostering trust and ensuring ethical medical practice.

In this article, I’m going to delve deeper into just what makes up the concept of medical consent, explore the different types of consent in healthcare and consider some situations where it isn’t deemed necessary.

LEARN MORE: My comprehensive guide to medical ethics also covers medical consent

Understanding Medical Consent

Informed consent to medical treatment is a fundamental aspect of both ethics and law. In order to make informed decisions about their care, patients have the right to be given information and ask questions regarding suggested treatments.

Medical consent is needed for various procedures such as surgeries, anaesthesia, invasive medical procedures like colonoscopies or biopsies, chemotherapy and vaccines.

This process is crucial because it ensures that patients understand the potential risks and benefits associated with the proposed treatment and the alternatives.

There are different types of consent, including written and verbal consent. In most cases, written consent is required, especially for major procedures and treatments.

A doctor in the middle of consenting a patient for a procedure
A doctor consenting a patient for an upcoming procedure

Verbal consent is occasionally acceptable for minor interventions or treatments, but obtaining written documentation whenever possible is always preferable to help safeguard the patient’s rights and protect the treating physician.

Informed consent is more than just signing a document, however. It involves a continuous, collaborative communication process between the patient and their healthcare provider.

This process allows the patient to weigh the pros and cons of the proposed treatment, discuss any concerns, ask questions, and eventually arrive at a decision that aligns with their personal values, preferences and lifestyle.

It is the responsibility of healthcare providers to provide all necessary information, including the nature of the procedure, potential risks, benefits, possible alternatives, and the consequences of not undergoing the treatment.

Patients should be given sufficient time to absorb the information, ask questions and discuss with family or other trusted individuals before providing their consent voluntarily.

Types of Medical Consent

There are several types of medical consent but all aim to ensure that patients fully understand and voluntarily agree to any medical treatment, procedure or service they receive.

Types Of Medical Consent Pixel Infographic

Informed Consent

Informed consent involves providing patients with adequate information about their treatment options, potential benefits, and risks, allowing them to make well-informed decisions about their care.

Communication between the patient and physician is vital during this process, fostering trust and shared decision-making.

Implied Consent

Implied consent occurs when a patient’s actions indirectly indicate their agreement to a particular treatment.

For example, by extending their arm to have their blood pressure taken, the patient is signalling their consent to the procedure.

Emergency Consent

In urgent situations where patients are unable to provide consent for themselves due to incapacitation, healthcare professionals are usually permitted to act in the patient’s best interest without explicit consent.

However, the provider’s decision must be based on medical evidence and considered to be in the best interest of the patient.

Understanding these types of medical consent can help clarify the expectations around consent and ensure that patients receive the appropriate level of information before undergoing medical procedures.

Informed Consent Process

The process begins with the healthcare practitioner providing the patient with sufficient information about the proposed treatment or procedure.

This includes an explanation of the benefits, risks, and potential alternatives, ensuring that the patient is fully informed before making a decision.

Once the essential information has been disclosed, the patient is encouraged to ask questions and address any concerns they may have. This open communication between the patient and the healthcare provider aims to create a comfortable environment where the patient feels empowered to make the best decision for themselves.

After the patient has received all the necessary information, they are given time to consider the options and weigh the potential outcomes.

They can consult with close friends, family members, or other healthcare professionals to aid in their decision-making process. It is essential that the patient does not feel pressured or rushed.

Finally, if the patient decides to proceed with the recommended treatment or procedure, they must provide their consent, usually in writing. This signifies that they have had all their questions answered, understand the risks, and are willingly agreeing to move forward.

Capacity And Competence To Consent

The capacity and competence to consent are closely intertwined, but they are subtly different concepts.

Capacity involves a patient’s ability to comprehend the specific medical situation they are facing and appreciate the consequences of the treatment options presented to them.

It is important to note that capacity may fluctuate depending on a patient’s mental state and the complexity of the treatment decision at hand.

In many cases, an individual may have the capacity to make some decisions but not others.

Competence, on the other hand, refers to a patient’s legal standing to make decisions on their own behalf.

This is typically determined by a court when there is a dispute or question about a person’s mental abilities, although it is not required for every medical decision.

In order to give informed consent, a patient must have both the capacity and competence to do it.

Children And Consent

For children and young people, consent to treatment is a complex matter that involves various considerations, such as the child’s age and their ability to make informed decisions.

The general rule is that those under the age of 18 require consent from their parent or legal guardian before any treatment can be administered.

However, exceptions may apply to cases where the child is capable of providing consent themselves.

This capacity is often assessed through the concept of Gillick competence, which refers to a child under 16 having sufficient intelligence, competence, and understanding to fully appreciate what is involved in their treatment.

If deemed Gillick competent, the child may give consent without parental involvement.

When Is Consent Not Required?

In certain situations, consent may not be required for medical treatment. One such scenario is medical emergencies.

In these cases, the healthcare professional must act in the best interest of the patient to save their life or prevent severe complications.

They may provide essential treatment without obtaining informed consent when there is not enough time for the patient to understand the details or make an informed decision.

Another instance where consent is not required is when a patient lacks mental capacity.

In these situations, the healthcare provider must use their professional judgement to weigh the risks and benefits of treatment and make the most appropriate decision for the patient.

If a patient is unable to comprehend or retain information related to their treatment, it becomes the responsibility of the medical professionals to act in their best interest.

Lastly, consent may not be necessary when dealing with public health matters.

This includes situations where the treatment provided is aimed at preventing the spread of infectious diseases or managing outbreaks.

In certain situations and certain diseases, a doctor may have to alert the authorities about an outbreak without the explicit consent of the patient, thus potentially breaking confidentiality.

Final Thoughts

Understanding medical consent is essential in upholding the rights of patients and ensuring proper communication between healthcare providers and their patients.

This process ultimately empowers patients to make well-informed decisions about their treatments, taking into account their personal values, preferences, and desired outcomes.

When patients are actively involved in the decision-making process via clear consent procedures, it fosters a sense of ownership over their healthcare, leading to improved health outcomes and a higher level of satisfaction with their overall care experience.

About the author
After studying medicine at the University of Leicester, Dr Ollie now works as a junior doctor in London. His interests include medical education and expedition medicine, as well as having a strong belief in the importance of widening access to medicine.