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Informed consent: A must for all patients

Informed consent is a crucial component in Massachusetts doctors’ relationships with their patients. In fact, the code of ethics for health care providers demands that doctors and nurses make every effort to ensure that their patients understand their potential plans of treatment as well as any other options that may be available. This is true even when patients lack the ability to make their own decisions.

As the American Cancer Society explains, it is the doctor’s responsibility to provide the necessary information to enable the patient to make informed decisions. For patients who are minors or who suffer from a disability that prevents them from providing consent, health care providers must turn to parents or other legal guardians to obtain permission before starting any treatments. The guardian then has the responsibility to seek information actively, ask questions to clarify when there is confusion, and maintain open lines of communication with health care providers because informed consent is a two-way street.

Patients and their guardians cannot truly provide informed consent unless they have a complete understanding of the benefits of the recommended medical procedure, its risks and any other treatment options available. Therefore, it is the responsibility of both doctors and nursing staff to present all relevant information carefully and clearly and then make every effort to ensure that when a guardian is involved, he or she understands the treatment.

Chapter 2 of the American Medical Association’s code of ethics clearly identifies the importance of including patients who cannot provide consent in the decision-making process to the greatest extent possible. Even if the patient is not able to provide informed consent, he or she may still be able to express expectations about the treatment, offer a vision for quality of life after treatment or otherwise participate. Doctors and nurses should support both patients and their guardians throughout the process of learning and making decisions about medical approaches.

Lack of informed consent can have severe legal repercussions, including claims of medical malpractice. The AMA notes that except in emergency situations, withholding information is “ethically unacceptable.” Without complete, accurate information, no patient or guardian can truly provide informed consent.

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