You have the right to help decide what medical care is best for you. By law, your health care providers must explain your health condition and treatment choices to you.
Informed consent means:
You are informed: you have received information about your health condition and treatment options.
You understand your health condition and treatment options.
You are able to decide what health care treatment you want to receive and give your consent to actually receive it.
To obtain your informed consent, your health care provider may talk with you about the treatment. Then you will read a description of it and sign a form. This is written informed consent.
Or, your health care provider may explain a treatment to you. They will ask if you agree to have the treatment. Not all medical treatments require written informed consent.
What Treatments Need Informed Consent?
These medical procedures require you to give written informed consent:
Most surgeries, even when they are not done in the hospital
Other advanced or complex medical tests and procedures. Examples are an endoscopy (placing a tube down your throat to look at the inside of your stomach) or a needle biopsy of the liver.
Radiation or chemotherapy to treat cancer
Some blood tests, such as HIV testing (need for written consent varies by state)
What Should Occur During the Informed Consent Process?
Your doctor or other health care provider must explain these things when they ask for your informed consent:
Your health problem and the reason for the treatment
What happens during the treatment
The risks of the treatment and how likely they are to occur
How likely the treatment is to work
Other options for treating your health problem
Unknown risks or possible side effects that may happen later
If treatment is needed now or can wait
You should have enough information to make a decision about your treatment. Your health care provider should also make sure you understand the information. One way a health care provide can do this is to ask you to repeat the information back in your own words.
If you would like more details about your treatment choices, ask your health care provider where to look. There are many trusted websites and other resources your provider can give you.
What Is Your Role in the Informed Consent Process?
You are an important member of your health care team. You should ask questions about anything you do not understand. If you need your provider to explain something in a different way, ask them to.
You have the right to refuse treatment if you are able to understand your health condition, your treatment options, and the risks and benefits of each option. Your doctor or other health care provider may tell you they do not think this is the best choice for you. But, your health care providers should not try to force you to have a treatment you do not want to have.
It is important to be involved in the informed consent process. After all, you are the one who will receive the treatment (if you give your consent).
Other Tips about Informed Consent
Informed consent is not needed in an emergency when delayed treatment would be dangerous for the patient.
Some people are no longer able to make an informed decision, such as someone with advanced Alzheimer’s disease. Another example is someone who is in a coma. In both cases, the patient would not be able to understand information to decide what medical care they want. In this type of situation, your health care provider would try to obtain informed consent for your treatment from a surrogate, or substitute, decision-maker.
Even when your health care provider does not ask for your written consent, you should still be told what tests or treatments are being done, and why. For example:
Men should know the reason for and pros and cons of a PSA blood test that screens for prostate cancer before they have the test.
Women should know the reason for and pros and cons of a Pap test, mammogram, or other test.
Anyone who is being tested for an infection that occurs after sexual contact should be told about the test and why they are being tested.
Schouten R, Edersheim JG. Informed consent, competency, treatment refusal, and civil commitment. In: Stern TA, Rosenbaum JF, Fava M, Biederman J, Rauch SL, eds. Massachusetts General Hospital Comprehensive Clinical Psychiatry. 1st ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2008:chap 84.
White C, Rosoff AJ, LeBlang TR. Informed consent to medical and surgical treatment. In: ACLM: Legal Medicine. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2007:chap 33.
A.D.A.M. Health Solutions, Ebix, Inc., Editorial Team: David Zieve, MD, MHA, and David R. Eltz. Previously reviewed by David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine (2/26/2012).