Informed consent – or is it really informed??

Posted on Nov 26, 2014 in Healthcare

We have all done it. Gone for a medical or dental test or procedure. Not looking forward to it, a bit nervous about it. And then someone on the staff gives you some papers to sign authorizing the procedure. Often they simply say, “Sign here,” and seem puzzled when you take the time to read it.

They are asking for your consent, but they are often not “informing” you at all. It’s called an Informed Consent form for a reason, and it’s up to all of us to be sure that’s exactly what we give. Consent for what will happen with full knowledge and understanding of what is involved.

I recently gave a short plain language presentation to members of the American Dental Association in Chicago, and this was the topic they wanted me to cover. Here is what we concluded.

If you are a medical or dental professional, this process needs to start with a conversation with your patient, long before they see the consent form. Explain what will happen and why this procedure is needed. Then ask the patient to tell you what they understand about the procedure.

Never ask, “Do you understand?” The answer will be yes.
Never ask, “Do you have any questions?” The answer will be no.
Instead, try asking, “What questions do you have?”

Only once you are confident the patient has a real understanding of what will happen should they be given the informed consent form and asked to sign it.

And if you are the patient or caregiver of the patient who is about to have a test or procedure, be sure to ask for any paperwork ahead of time. This will give you plenty of time to read it and think about any questions you want answered.

The informed consent form should, of course, be written in plain language. No medicalese and no legalese. It is your right as a patient to understand what will happen to you and to be sure your doctor takes the time necessary to explain it.

As we like to say…Demand to understand!

About the author:

Joanne Locke was a bureaucrat for nearly 30 years; now she is plain language consultant. She is also one of the co-founders of the Center for Plain Language. When not advocating for plain language, she’s happiest spending time as a volunteer at her local animal shelter.