A common theme shared by many individuals wanting to discuss a potential medical malpractice claim is having experienced unexpected, and sometimes serious, consequences from a medical procedure or treatment that the patient thought they understood. Situations like these can be very unfortunate – what a patient might expect to be a standard, relatively straight-forward treatment can sometimes result in a life-altering disability or illness. In other cases, even a procedure that the patient understands as risky might still bring results that the patient did not know were possible. In these situations, patients sometimes feel misled and uninformed by their doctors.
In the area of medical malpractice claims, these issues about patient expectations are addressed by an area of law known as informed consent. Although the legal definition can at times be complex, particularly when lots of detailed information is involved, informed consent is a basic concept that tries to promote good doctor-patient communication. The goal of informed consent is that prior to a patient undergoing a procedure or treatment, the patient is fully informed about what the treatment entails and gives his or her consent to the treatment.
While most individuals find it easy to understand the need to consent, confusion can stem from what it really means to be fully informed. Although different states take different approaches to defining the doctor’s duties in this regard, there is basic information the doctor is expected to convey to their patient when explaining treatment options:
The patient’s diagnosis
The nature and purpose of the proposed treatment or procedure
The benefits and the risks of the proposed treatment or procedure
The alternatives to the proposed treatment or procedure, and their benefits and risks
The goal of informed consent is to help the patient make an educated decision about how to proceed with his or her own medical care. With this goal in mind, physicians and other health care professionals are expected to play the role of educator while still allowing patients to make their own decisions. And of course, in this process, the patient plays an important role of being an active listener and asking questions about topics that remain unclear.