It is your first week in your first job and you are on duty on the adult surgical ward. Your consultant is busy in outpatients and asks you to 'consent Mr X for the afternoon list'. This is the first time you have had to consent a patient.

Before you thrust the consent form into the patient's hand to sign, stop and think... Is this necessary? Is it important? Why do we do this?

The answers are: yes, yes, and because without the patient's consent, any treatment - or even touching - could be construed as a crime or civil offence.

Let's get technical...

  1. Consent represents the ethical and legal expression of a person's right to have their autonomy and self-determination respected.
  2. It may well be unlawful for doctors to treat patients in the absence of consent or other authority, and those doing so could commit both the crime of battery and the tort of trespass to the person1.
  3. A doctor may treat without consent in a patient’s best interests as a matter of necessity in an emergency, where the patient lacks capacity. However, if the patient has capacity it is no defence to argue that treatment without consent was in the patient’s best interests.

In other words, touching a patient without proper consent could leave you vulnerable to a civil or criminal charge of battery and, if the patient suffers harm as a result of the treatment, a claim in negligence. The patient may also lodge a complaint under the NHS Complaints Procedure or directly with the GMC, and you may also face Trust disciplinary proceedings.