Medical consent is a form of consent which must be obtained before performing medical procedures. In the case of most adults, consent is received directly from the patient. For children and adults who do not have the capacity for consent, as for example when someone is unconscious after a car accident, consent is obtained instead from a parent, spouse, or other person who is empowered to make decisions on behalf of the patient.
Historically, consent was not an important part of medical practice. Doctors did not explain which procedures they were performing and why and they did not provide patients with information about the risks and benefits of procedures. In the 20th century, however, the approach to the practice of medicine and medical ethics began to evolve, and medical consent became an important part of medical practice. Today, consent is required for medical procedures and care providers must provide documentation that consent was obtained.
There are several components to obtaining medical consent. The first is making sure that the patient is well informed; people may refer to medical consent as “informed consent” for this reason. Informing patients involves making sure that a patient understands why a procedure is being recommended, which alternatives are available, what will happen if the procedure is not performed, how the procedure will be done, and what the risks and benefits of the procedure are. The patient is permitted to ask questions to receive as much information as possible.
This process may be documented. For example, before a surgical procedure, the surgeon meets with the patient to go over paperwork which includes a consent form. The patient must read and sign the form to indicate that the risks of the procedure were explained and that the patient knows what to expect. The form also includes disclosures about potential actions which may need to be taken during surgery so that the patient is aware of potential variations in outcome.
Once the patient is informed, she or he can make a decision about whether or not to go through with a procedure. This may also be recorded, with the patient authorizing a medical care provider to perform the procedure in writing so that there will be no confusion later. This documentation can become important in the event that there is a dispute about whether or not medical consent was obtained before a procedure.
People have the right to refuse to consent to medical procedures or to consent selectively. For example, if a patient with cancer is informed that a surgeon might need to remove an entire organ to take out a tumor, the patient could indicate that he or she consents to resection of the tumor, but not to organ removal, in which case the surgeon's activities would be limited in the operating room.
When someone lacks the capacity to give consent legally, she or he may still be consulted during the process and may also be informed about the procedure. For example, if a dentist wants to perform an extraction on a child to treat a dental problem, the dentist could explain the procedure to the child and talk about alternatives to make the child feel more comfortable and cooperative while also obtaining legal consent from the parent.