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 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?
Medical procedures that require you to give written informed consent include:
Most surgeries, even when they are not done in the hospital.
Other advanced or complex medical tests and procedures, such as 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?
When asking for your informed consent, your doctor or other health care provider must explain:
If treatment is necessary now or if it can wait
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 on
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 provider may do this is by asking 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 do so.
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.
Informed consent is not needed in an emergency when delayed treatment would be dangerous.
Some people are no longer able to make an informed decision, such as someone with advanced Alzheimer disease or someone in a coma. In both cases, the person would not be able to understand information to decide what medical care they want. In these types of situations, the health care provider would try to obtain informed consent for 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:
Before they have the test, men should know the pros, cons, and the reasons for a PSA blood test that screens for prostate cancer.
Women should know the pros, cons, and the reasons for a Pap test, a mammogram, or other tests.
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.
Emanuel EJ. Bioethics in the practice of medicine. In: Goldman L, Schafer AI, eds. Goldman’s Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2011:chap 2.
Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.