Consent in surgery

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A review of consent for surgery is timely. As the length of surgeons' training diminishes, despite the increasing interest in the content of the surgical curriculum, the law governing the process of gaining consent has been given scant attention. The advent of non-medically qualified surgical practitioners raises questions about the breadth of knowledge that is required to ensure that valid consent is obtained. Consent is as fundamental as any other basic principle on which surgical practice relies, and its use in patient care is a clinical skill.

The ‘traditional’ approach to consent contained some negative elements. A doctor who was incapable of performing the proposed operation often obtained consent. In a genuine attempt to protect patients from anxiety, the rare-but-grave potential complications were sometimes not discussed. There was uncertainty about what should properly be disclosed, compounded by conflicting messages from the courts. The consent was sometimes taken from people who were ineligible to provide it.

These could be viewed as aberrations, and some persist. Having clarified the necessity for consent, this review concludes that it should be obtained by the operating surgeon. The threshold for interventions that need formal consent is discussed, together with the legal tests for capacity. In considering the recent law, it becomes clear that any potential complication that the reasonable patient would need to take into consideration before deciding to give their consent is one that should be disclosed.

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