Legally, as society has become more litigious, a valid consent is beneficial to protect both parties. A person could accuse a healthcare professional or researcher of trespass or assault if the person did not give their consent or if their consent was not voluntary. If the person is not sufficiently informed of the possible consequences of their decision and they suffer as a result, they could accuse the healthcare professional or researcher of negligence. Therefore, through the UK common law and healthcare legislation, informed consent is a requirement in most treatment and research settings. However, consent goes beyond legitimising actions that would otherwise be unlawful.
There are differing opinions about the strong reliance now placed on informed consent. In treatment settings, is it ever possible to inform someone sufficiently on the complexities of a surgical procedure or a treatment regime so that a person really understands the implications of their decision?
“I must know everything about what I can expect before I can make a decision.”
“This information is too complex and too confusing to understand. I’ll do what the doctor wants. They’re the expert.”
Some people, when faced with complex descriptions or multiple pages of information to join a clinical trial, simply sign consent forms without properly reading or trying to understand the information.
“I want all the information available on this procedure so that I will understand what will happen.”
“I’m not interested in reading all this information so I’ll just sign the paper.”
Some argue that requiring informed consent to use some types of personal information, such as medical records, hinders research by placing more ‘weight’ on protecting the privacy of the individual over enabling research for the benefit of society.
“I must be asked for my consent for all uses of my healthcare information or it’s a breach of my privacy.”
" We can’t ask everyone for their consent; it’s too expensive and time-consuming. But without this research we won’t know how safe and effective this treatment is.”
Balancing these opposing views is difficult. Regardless, informed consent is a central part of the interaction between a healthcare professional or researcher and an individual and is seen as one of the core fundamentals in the ethical conduct of treatment and research.
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