Thursday, October 9, 2014

"Informed" "consent"

Dr Orthochick over at Fizzy's place is talking consents.

It's a tangent, but I find myself a huge skeptic/cynic of/about the whole concept of informed consent. This is of course supposed to be our antidote to the bad old paternalistic days when you would want some information about what was going to happen with your condition and your care and your wise old doctor would pat you on the head, take a long drag of his unfiltered Camel, and tell you not to worry your pretty head about it.

But the concept of informed consent does not make very much sense, philosophically, nor is it particularly practical. Informed consent is supposed to include "PARQ," shorthand for "procedures, risks, alternatives, and questions." The big daddy here is risks; that's what we talk most about. The risks of doing a thing and the risks of not doing it. And then you get to chose. Sounds great! But how am I supposed to give you an accurate account of the possible risks of something I want/need to do for you? There are always dozens of things that can go wrong, some minor, some major.

Obviously the significance of each particular risk depends on how likely it is to come to pass, which is a statistical question. But most people (including most physicians) are not good with statistics. We tend to overrate rare risks, underrate things we haven't seen personally, make big changes in response to one bad experience, etc.

Practically speaking, in the best case I tell you and you understand whether a risk is rare or common. But if it's rare, you probably don't need to worry about it, and if it's common, it's probably minor. (Informed consent would be really useful if doctors commonly performed unnecessary procedures that killed or crippled half the people who had them, but for obvious reasons, we don't do that.)

So what you're left with are rare serious risks, to which it will be difficult to assign significance to because they are rare, and common minor risks, which neither you or I care much about.

Sometimes people have strong opinions about their care, and sometimes they have a much greater tolerance for one kind of risk (kidney failure from a coronary angiogram) versus another (a heart attack like the one that killed their father.) And sometime people are done with medical care, and they want to slow down or stop -- that's a really important discussion to have.

Most of the time, though, people don't have the medical or statistical expertise to weigh all the risks and benefits of a particular course of action -- that's what they pay me for. And they know that. Most people are going to do whatever it is you recommend as their doctor (at least in the emergency setting, where I work). And that's really the only rational course, when you hire a professional to help you do something you don't know how to do yourself.

It's not about the doctor thing. If I hire an IT person to fix my computer, and they tell me I have too many zeroes and I need to buy more ones, then that's what I'm going to do.

So at the end of the day, the real "informed consent" boils down to this: Do you trust me? Do you feel like I care about you? Do you think I am careful and competent?

If you do, and I recommend something, you should do it. If you don't, then regardless of what I say, you probably shouldn't.

You can't take the trust out of the doctor-patient relationship. Every patient (with decisional capacity) should have all their questions answered, know what's happening, and have veto over any and all things being done to their bodies. But on a daily basis we assault patients' ears and brains with a mountain of complications and terrible possibilities that they can't possibly weigh and measure, even well, and we badger them to make important decisions when they are hurt, scared, and sick, all in the name of a chimera called "informed consent."

But the only decision they are really making, most times, is: Do you trust me?

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