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Informed consent

Your treatment is your choice and when it comes to having a test, treatment or operation that involves significant risk, you need to give what is called ‘informed consent’.

Informed consent requires your health practitioner to discuss with you the potential benefits and harms of the treatment options available to you. Before giving your consent to treatment, ask your health practitioner these three questions:

1. What are my treatment options?

The discussion should include information about any alternative treatment options, including different types of surgery and treatments. You are also entitled to seek a second opinion.

2. What are the expected outcomes of each option?

Successful treatment can never be absolutely assured and different procedures carry different risks. You need to be aware of the expected outcome of the treatment or treatments being recommended, including known complications, so that you can decide which treatment option is best for you.

3. What is the likelihood that each expected outcome will occur?

The likelihood of expected outcomes (success, side effects and/or complications) varies with different treatments and with individual patients’ characteristics. Statistics for success and complication rates are based on studies of large numbers of women with the same stage of cancer. Knowing how likely it is that each outcome will occur will help you and your clinician weigh up the benefits and risks.

Some procedures that are new or uncommon may not have sufficient research to support meaningful statistics and your doctor will make recommendations based on other information, such as personal experience, training or expert knowledge. Where your doctor is relying on alternative information they should discuss this with you.

What is meant by consent to treatment?

Every patient has the right to participate in any decision about her health care or medical treatment. In general, health practitioners are required to inform you of the nature of the proposed treatment and to gain your consent for all treatment, before it starts.

The process and requirements for obtaining consent may vary depending on the patient’s competency and age. However, it will involve the following steps:

1    A discussion about the benefits and risks or different treatments.

2    The patient decides which treatments to have. Often this decision is shared by the clinician but it is important that you participate to whatever degree you feel able. If you need more time to consider your options or discuss them with family and friends, talk to your doctor.

3    The health practitioner gains the patient’s consent for a specific treatment, having appropriately disclosed any material risks for that treatment.

4    The health practitioner records and documents the consent process.

If you are not sure whether you want to have treatment, ask your treatment team to explain what may happen if you do not have it.

Health care decisions for others

You may be responsible for making decisions on behalf of another adult under an enduring power of attorney or an advance health directive. The laws covering this situation differ across Australia. For more information, contact the Department of Justice or Attorney-General’s Department in your state or territory.

If you have been asked to consent to treatment and you are not sure what is in the patient’s best interests, it may help to talk to the treatment team and consult family members.

You should feel free to request a family meeting with a number of team members to assist your decision-making.

You may also ask for a second opinion from another doctor.