Everything you need to know about the GMC’s updated guidance on consent, including capacity, delegation and working within your capabilities.

The GMC has updated guidance on consent, which came into force on 9 November 2020. The updated guidance, Decision making and consent, places greater emphasis on doctors and patients taking decisions together based on exchange of relevant information specific to the individual patient.

Commenting on the guidance, the MDU’s head of advisory services Caroline Fryar, said:

“Obtaining consent is part of a continuing conversation with patients. The need for doctors to understand what is important to each individual patient has been emphasised in recent case law, so it is right that the guidance encompasses this.”

What’s new?

The updated guidance takes into account changes to recent case law (Montgomery v Lanarkshire Health Board) and emphasises the importance of knowing your individual patient. There is a strong focus on dialogue with patients, whether or not they are able to give their consent, and circumstances that might affect the decision making process.

Here’s a summary of what has changed in the updated guidance.

The GMC’s updated guidance on consent

Medico-legal adviser Dr Udvitha Nandasoma explores the key takeaways from the updated consent guidance in this short video.

Taking a proportionate approach

At the outset, doctors are reminded that the guidance applies to every health and care decision that is made with every patient (paragraph 1). This applies equally to decisions about mental and physical health regardless of where the interaction takes place, acknowledging that many consultations now take place remotely (paragraph 3).

However, it's acknowledged that not every paragraph will be relevant to every decision that is made (paragraph 5) and doctors will need to apply their judgement in individual circumstances, allowing a proportionate approach. This might arise, for example, during the treatment of emergencies where consent is still needed if the patient is conscious, but there will be less time to apply the guidance in detail.

As well as time constraints, the availability of resources is also considered. Obtaining consent does not always need to be a formal, time-consuming process (paragraph 6), particularly in circumstances where verbal consent can be relied upon, such as minimally or non-invasive interventions like examinations (paragraph 7).

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Finding out what matters to a patient

It is important to note that the process of obtaining consent is not a one-off event but will involve ongoing discussion with the patient. With this in mind, more emphasis is placed on the importance of dialogue with individual patients and finding out what matters to the patient, including individual values and priorities (paragraphs 16-20). As part of this dialogue, it is important to find out what risk an individual patient would and would not be prepared to take (paragraph 20).

The guidance acknowledges that it wouldn’t be reasonable to discuss every possible risk of harm but that discussions should be tailored to each individual patient and be guided by what is important to them personally (paragraph 22).

Consider the type of consent you need

It is important to remember that consent isn’t only needed for medical interventions and invasive procedures. You should think about consent for every interaction you have with a patient. This may be for something as simple as taking their history, which may involve some very personal questions. It is also important to ensure you have consent before you examine a patient. In the MDU’s experience, serious allegations can be made if a patient has not understood why a particular examination is being carried out if it hasn’t been explained to them and their consent sought.

While placing your stethoscope under a patient’s breast to listen to their apex beat may seem perfectly normal to you, a patient won’t understand why this is part of your assessment of their heart. Similarly, a patient won’t know that feeling for femoral pulses may form part of your abdominal examination. Misunderstandings can arise from the most innocent of interactions and communication is key.