When my friend Jennie needed minor, out-patient surgery, she asked me to accompany her. When we arrived at the clinic, she was handed a stack of papers, told to fill them out, sign them, and return them to the receptionist. Included was a document called "Informed Consent."
She just stared at it. "I’m not sure I understand this one," she told me. "What exactly am I consenting to?"
You’ve heard this advice before: "Don’t sign anything until you know what you are signing." Too often, we ignore that advice, and the swipe of a pen indicates we understand. But in this case, signing an informed consent document before you are ready could jeopardize your health.
The concept of informed consent is based on state law. It requires your doctor to provide information about the benefits, risks and alternatives of any test, procedure or treatment she recommends, before it is performed. It requires you to sign a document which states your doctor has provided that information.
But there’s more to know, too. Here are some guidelines to keep in mind the next time you are given an informed consent document to sign.
First, your signature on the form tells your doctor that she has permission to go forward with her recommended treatment, test or procedure. It makes no sense to give any doctor permission to do anything to you until you understand why it’s being done, what else could be done instead, and what could possibly happen to you in the process. If you have unanswered questions, then keep asking them until you comprehend the answers.
As you read through the informed consent document, be sure it is clear and doesn't use any statements that allow them to hedge the care you get. A good example is informed consent for surgery. Any hospital that uses medical residents (who are students) to handle some of their patients, will probably use statements in their informed consent documents that will lead you to believe a full-attending surgeon will do your surgery. However, after you've been anesthetized, you may be handed over to one of these residents to do your surgery. Granted, students need to practice on someone!