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Full Informed Consent in Medical Settings

A couple sits and receives information from a doctor sitting opposite them.

The Department of Health and Human Services (the Department), through the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS), recently published new guidance on informed consent from patients in medical settings, with special emphasis on particularly sensitive procedures or those including anesthesia. This is an important precedent to signal larger movements of change in the healthcare industry, as well as make  cultures of consent standard across the board.

Full consent is not just signing the forms and saying “yes” or “no” to a procedure- it’s understanding the full extent of every aspect of it without any barriers to comprehension. This means feeling safe to ask any amount of questions if needed, having access to translators, having long conversations instead of feeling rushed, and feeling empowered to say no or make requests anytime. 

The practice of full consent from patients in medical settings is essential to address and counteract the many power imbalances that take place between a patient and medical personnel. These power imbalances exacerbate already existing forms of oppression in society (racism, classism, xenophobia, ableism, etc.) which contribute to violence and foster environments of inequality. 

Consent centers interactions and decisions around a patient’s own voice and will, making them the sole decider on their boundaries and what happens to their body. Consent promotes individual empowerment, but also pushes back on a specific history of oppression and harm in medical settings in which patients were manipulated, coerced, assaulted, or experienced medical personnel prioritizing their own wants and convenience.

Besides putting patients at the helm of their own health, full informed consent assures that patients understand the risks, benefits, possible repercussions, options and costs of their health care choices, and also understand their right to say no to anything they are not comfortable with, even if it is recommended. Medical professionals are not always aware of the traumas, experiences, or triggers a patient may have. This is why individuals are the best deciders of what is right for their own body. 

Consent contributes to creating safer environments everywhere. By establishing norms of respect, accountability, and nonviolence in medical settings, it can help deter and prevent acts of sexual violence, harassment, abuse, and other forms of harm which have been a longstanding trend in the medical field. Cultures of informed consent build foundations of trust and cooperation that can make overwhelming, potentially scary environments and interactions feel safer.