The world of medicine and medical treatment is vast and brutally complex. Doctors study intensely during their four-plus years at medical school in order to understand treatments and ailments that exist in today's society. Accordingly then, a great discrepancy exists between a doctor's understanding of patients' medical conditions and the patients themselves. So, what is there to stop a doctor from imposing his or her will on a patient regarding their treatment without disclosing information that would lead the patient to select an alternative form of treatment? The answer to this question lies in what the medical field has dubbed "informed consent". Informed consent is not only a fundamental concept in the practice of medicine, but also is enforced by law within the United States; however, it should be noted that a patient must have the capacity and competence to exercise it.
Capacity in this case refers to the ability of the patient to understand his or her plight (medical condition) and be able to weigh the options presented with reason and serious thought. If the doctor determines that the patient does not have capacity, the decision will be made by a surrogate such as a family member unless the situation calls for emergency action to be taken. The definition of surrogate varies depending on the state.
Competence deals more with whether the patient can legally make a decision on his or her own. Is the patient over the age of 18? If not, the parent or guardian will have to make such a decision, unless certain circumstances lead state laws to say otherwise. If the patient is over the age of 18, the patient is legally authorized to make the decision for his or herself.
The concept of informed consent as it relates to the medical field is a safeguard for patients by ensuring that patients are capable of making medical decisions for themselves without coercion from any party being a factor. It implies that a certain standard of knowledge should be conveyed to the patient by the doctor in regards to the nature of their conditions, treatments available, possible complications, estimated time of recovery, and any other important factors regarding treatment that the patient would need to know about. Once the patient has the information in hand and assuming he or she has both competence and capacity to make an informed decision, the patient may consent to treatment.
Informed consent is a fundamental minimum for treatment of any patient and is a safeguard for the rights of all patients.
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