The last time you had a medical procedure, did you truly give informed consent?
Probably not, according to two physicians who recently wrote an article on the issue for the New York Times. They even went so far as to call today’s informed consent practices a “farce.”
That’s a fairly shocking admission, given that the American Medical Association’s own Code of Medical Ethics says that doctors have a duty to obtain informed consent — in other words, to provide enough information to their patients so that they can make an informed decision about their treatment.
But it’s also honest, and it will certainly ring true to anyone who has recently had a medical procedure. In the flurry of paperwork you filled out, you likely signed a “consent to treatment” form. But that doesn’t mean your consent was informed consent.
According to the AMA itself, to give informed consent, the patient must understand:
- The specific diagnosis, if it’s known,
- The purpose of the treatment or procedure and what it entails,
- The risks and benefits of going ahead with the treatment or procedure,
- Any alternatives to the suggested treatment or procedure, and their risks and benefits, and
- The risks and benefits of refusing the treatment or procedure.
Doctors today are often operating on tight appointment timeframes that make it nearly impossible to explain all the details, risks, benefits and alternatives associated with a complex procedure. But it’s important for them to do so, because you have a right to understand the treatment you are agreeing to.
The burden of ensuring informed consent should never be placed on the patient. Still, the doctors in the New York Times article did offer some tips for anyone talking with their doctor about an upcoming medical procedure:
- Ask the doctor to use common words and terms. If your doctor says that you’ll end up with a “simple iliac ileal conduit” or a “urostomy,” feel free to say “I don’t understand those words. Can you explain what that means?”
- Summarize back what you heard. “So I should split my birth control pills in half and take half myself and give the other half to my boyfriend?” That way, if you’ve misunderstood what we did a poor job of explaining, there will be a chance to straighten it out: “No, that’s not right. You should take the whole pill yourself.”
- Request written materials, or even pictures or videos. We all learn in different ways and at different paces, and “hard copies” of information that you can take time to absorb at home may be more helpful than the few minutes in our offices.
- Ask for best-case, worst-case, and most likely scenarios, along with the chance of each one occurring.
- Ask if you can talk to someone who has undergone the surgery, or received the chemotherapy. That person will have a different kind of understanding of what the experience was like than we do.
- Explore alternative treatment options, along with the advantages and disadvantages of each. “If I saw 10 different experts in my condition, how many would recommend the same treatment you are recommending?”
- Take notes, and bring someone else to your appointments to be your advocate, ask the questions you may be reluctant to, and be your “accessory brain,” to help process the information we are trying to convey.
It can be difficult to get a doctor to slow down long enough to really explain your treatment in terms you can understand. But it’s certainly always better to ask questions now, rather than have regrets about your medical decisions later. If you or a loved one has already experienced complications after undergoing a medical procedure and you don’t feel you were fully informed about its risks, contact the Medical Malpractice Attorneys at Sommers Schwartz to discuss your case.