The ‘secret’ about informed consent and 5 ways to improve the process

Doctor with patient
Doctors can improve the informed consent process to help patients understand their risks.

Patients may have signed a consent form, but in too many cases they don’t have any idea what they have agreed to, according to two Cleveland Clinic doctors.

But physicians can do more to make sure the process really does inform patients of risks, such as the dangers of chemotherapy drugs or anesthesia, wrote Dr. Mikkael A. Sekeres, director of the leukemia program, and Dr. Timothy D. Gilligan, director of coaching at the clinic’s Center for Excellence in Healthcare Communication, in The New York Times.

“The secret is that informed consent in healthcare is commonly not-so-well informed,” they say. 

While Sekeres and Gilligan focus on steps patients can take to help doctors do a better job of informed consent, their tips can be flipped to help physicians. So here are a few actions doctors can take to increase patients’ understanding about a procedure or treatment option:

  • Use common words and terms, not medical jargon to explain information to patients.
  • Ask patients to summarize back what they have heard. Encourage patients to take notes and bring someone with them to appointments to help process the information.
  • Use written materials that they can take home, or even pictures or videos to accommodate patients’ different ways of learning. 
  • Describe best-case, worst-case and most likely scenarios. 
  • Talk to patients about alternative treatment options and their advantages and disadvantages.