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What does informed consent mean?

Last Updated at August 9th 2021
By now, you have probably heard the term informed consent thrown around quite a bit during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Key points:

  • Informed consent means you understand and agree to a medical treatment or service

  • You may not be able to give informed consent in an emergency

  • Ask lots of questions before consenting to medical treatments or procedures

Older person discussing their health with their doctor
Medical treatment should be explained to you by a doctor in a clear way so you understand what you are agreeing to. [Source: Shutterstock]

Informed consent has been a sticking point of the COVID-19 vaccine rollout, as older people in aged care were among the first to receive the vaccine if they agreed to the jab with informed consent.

When you make a decision in regards to your health, you want to make sure you understand what you're agreeing to including the potential outcomes and risks.

It is important to understand what informed consent means when receiving medical treatment.

What is it?

To give informed consent means you agree that you understand what medical treatment you are being provided to benefit your health.

You'll be asked to provide this consent before starting a treatment or agreeing to a procedure delivered by your General Practitioner or other health professional.

It could be any medical treatment, like surgery and its management, medication, the therapy you receive, tests, or care services.

All medical treatment you receive should be explained to you by a healthcare professional in a clear way so that you can understand what you are agreeing to.

Your doctor should be providing all the information necessary so you can make informed consent around your treatment, including side effects or associated risks.

If, however, you have difficulties understanding and require assistance, for example through an interpreter, it is important you ask for help so you can understand the decision you are making.

You can utilise the free Translating and Interpreting Service (TIS) National to help you understand what a medical professional is saying about your health and potential treatment, call 13 14 50 to organise for a translator to come to your appointment.

While informed consent may sound obvious, there are three different types of consent, and it can really matter depending on the medical treatment or surgery you are agreeing to.

Implied consent

You would provide implied consent for low-level treatment or procedures through a healthcare professional. For example drawing blood for testing, providing urine or stool samples, or taking medication from your doctor. Implied consent means you have followed and cooperated with instructions given to you by your doctor.

Verbal consent 

This type of consent is for treatment or surgeries that do not have a lot of risk. You have provided your agreement to treatment or surgery verbally to the relevant people.

Written consent

Providing written consent is only for more complex or riskier treatment or surgeries. For example, you need to understand all the complications or risks that may arise from a heart transplant. In the current case, the Government is making sure older Australians have an understanding around accepting COVID-19 vaccinations.

Health decisions

Your health should always be a priority. Over the years, you would have likely made a lot of decisions around your health.

Whether a health scare, illness or the normal seasonal flu, you would have likely done all you can to understand the sickness, so you can make a decision about the best medical treatment for you.

The same should be said for when you are older. It is even more important as an older person that your opinion and choices are heard by your medical professionals, family, and any Enduring Power of Attorney's so that your independence and right to choose is upheld.

It is also an important right for older people to be able to make decisions about their own healthcare.

There are some instances where medical professionals cannot get informed consent from you before medical treatment or a surgery, such as for procedures in life-saving situations or emergencies.

For instance, if you were in a car accident, you would be taken to hospital where emergency staff would perform whatever life-saving surgery or procedures possible to keep you alive. 

This is where an Advanced Care Directive (ACD) can become really important during these situations. In your ACD, you can stipulate procedures you may not want to receive. For example, if you have a do not resuscitate request if you live in a nursing home.

It is vital that your Enduring Power of Attorney or medical decision maker, as well as your family, is aware of your wishes around medical treatment when you are unable to make the decisions yourself. So if there is an emergency your family can make the correct decisions or arrangements on your behalf.

When you organise your ACD or estate plan, these decisions should all be made before you become ill or before there is an accident, otherwise, someone else may make decisions about your care or medical treatments that may go against your wishes.

Making the most informed decision

When your doctor or medical professional suggests certain treatments or procedures for illnesses, ask a lot of questions as it is the best way for you to fully understand what will be required with this treatment.

This could include:

  • How does this treatment work?

  • Will it cost a lot of money?

  • How common is this procedure?

  • Will I be recovering for long afterwards?

  • What benefit will I have after this surgery?

  • Is there anything else I should know when making a decision?

It is also a great opportunity to raise any concerns you have with the treatment as well as reasons why you may not want the specific treatment and alternative options to take its place. For example, if you are a Jehovah's Witness, you may not agree to a blood transfusion and want to find alternative treatment for the health issue you are having.

It can be a good idea to talk to your family and friends as well, they can provide helpful insight that may assist you in making your decision or you may decide to get a second opinion from another health professional.

How do your doctors explain your medical treatments in a way you understand? Tell us in the comments below.

Related content:

What is an Advance Care Directive?
What should you specify in your Advance Care Directive?
Do I really need a Will and last testament?

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