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Too little information equals a lack of informed consent

All too often, doctors tell patients what treatment they're going to prescribe and treat the patient's role in the decision-making process as almost unimportant. Doctors will tell the patient the positive outcome they expect, and either gloss over the potential risks and alternative choices or skip that part of the discussion altogether.

Then, when something goes wrong, the physician tries to deflect any blame by saying, "But the patient agreed to the treatment!"

You can't be expected to give your informed consent to health care based on only half the necessary information. Failing to provide you with everything you need to know about the treatment you're receiving deprives you of the chance to make an intelligent choice about your own health care -- and that's a type of negligence and medical malpractice.

What should a physician tell you before initiating treatment?

The answer to that question actually varies a lot on the situation, but it essentially boils down to whether or not the doctor did what any other reasonable doctor would have done in the same situation to make sure that you understood your choices.

For example, if you come to the emergency room with chest pains, the doctor may decide that it's prudent to give you a nitroglycerin tablet first to stop a possible heart attack and do testing second. If the doctor informs you that she or he is concerned your heart might be damaged by delayed treatment while the diagnostic procedure is going on and says that outweighs the most common risk from nitroglycerin -- low blood pressure -- you likely have enough information under the circumstances to either consent to or deny treatment.

However, when you approach your doctor about a chronic condition, like migraines, there's time for a much longer discussion about possible treatment options and their relative risks and benefits. Your doctor should offer you his or her opinion but include you in the decision-making process. If he or she wants to try a medication, you should be told any known problems or serious risks associated with that medication, not just its potential benefits. If you aren't ready to make a decision, the physician should give you time to decide if the benefits outweigh the risks -- not pressure you into accepting treatment.

For more information on how we approach claims involving doctor error and the lack of informed consent, please visit our page.

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