Editorials

Obtaining consent for examination and treatment

BMJ 2001; 322 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.322.7290.810 (Published 07 April 2001) Cite this as: BMJ 2001;322:810

New government guide covers most of the bases

  1. Alexander McCall Smith, professor of medical law
  1. University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh EH8 9YL

    Most doctors are aware of the importance of obtaining consent from patients for examination and treatment. Yet many are uncertain about what this means and fear that their instincts about what is right may not be enough to protect them from legal challenge. The result of this uncertainty may be reluctance to treat in a difficult case or the expenditure of much time and effort avoiding allegations that adequate consent has not been obtained. Sensitivity to consent has thus been a two edged sword: while patients have been protected from indefensible paternalism, they have at the same time been subjected to unnecessary formalities. In the case of psychiatric treatment, extreme sensitivity to consent has, in some jurisdictions, resulted in the denial of treatment to patients who desperately need it.

    In the long running consent saga, the courts have been caught between a desire to protect the rights of patients—a role with which the law feels quite comfortable—and a reluctance to impose …

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