Why consent is crucial

Patients have a fundamental legal and ethical right to determine what happens to their own bodies. Valid consent to treatment is therefore absolutely central in all forms of healthcare, from providing personal care to undertaking major surgery. Seeking consent is also a matter of common courtesy between health professionals and patients.


What consent is – and isn’t

“Consent” is a patient’s agreement for a health professional to provide care. Patients may indicate consent non-verbally (for example by presenting their arm for their pulse to be taken), orally, or in writing. For the consent to be valid, the patient must:

  • be competent to take the particular decision;
  • have received sufficient information to take it; and
  • not be acting under duress.

The context of consent can take many different forms, ranging from the active request by a patient of a particular treatment (which may or may not be appropriate or available) to the passive acceptance of a health professional’s advice. In some cases, the health professional will suggest a particular form of treatment or investigation and after discussion the patient may agree to accept it.

In others, there may be a number of ways of treating a condition, and the health professional will help the patient to decide between them. Some patients, especially those with chronic conditions, become very well informed about their illness and may actively request particular treatments. In many cases, ‘seeking consent’ is better described as ‘joint decision-making’: the patient and health professional need to come to an agreement on the best way forward, based on the patient’s values and preferences and the health professional’s clinical knowledge.

Where an adult patient lacks the mental capacity (either temporarily or permanently) to give or withhold consent for themselves, no-one else can give consent on their behalf. However, treatment may be given if it is in their best interests, as long as it has not been refused in advance in a valid and applicable advance directive.