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Consent and healthcare

The principle of consent is an important part of medical ethics and the international human rights law.

consent tickboxesConsent to healthcare means a person must give their permission before they receive any type of medical treatment or examination.

Whether it’s a blood test or a physical examination, a health professional needs to have your consent (permission and agreement) in order to carry out that treatment or examination.

How do I give consent?

Consent can be given in a few different ways:

Verbally. This can be by saying you are happy to have your temperature checked.

In writing. You can give your consent by signing a form to agree to surgery.

Passively. Holding out your arm to show you agree to have a blood test.

Can I get treatment without permission from my parents/guardians?

Whether or not you can make your own decision about receiving treatment or prescriptions and ‘give consent’ depends on your age.

I’m 18 years-old and over

Young people 18 years-old and over are legally adults and have automatic rights to make decisions about their own health care or treatment, like going on the contraceptive pill or having surgery.

I’m 16 to 17 years-old

If you are 16 or 17 years-old, the issue of consent to medical care is not always clear.

While you are entitled to confidential care, you may not be entitled to consent (agree) to medical treatment. This means, for example, if you speak with your doctor about feelings of anxiety, they won’t tell your parents/guardians about the conversation, but without your parents/guardian’s consent, the doctor may not be able to prescribe anxiety medication for you.

When deciding whether to treat a young person aged 16 or 17 years-old, the question your doctor must ask themselves is: Is this young person mature enough to make important decisions about treatment on their own?

If you want or need a particular treatment, for example counselling, or a prescription for depression, then the doctor must decide whether you are mature enough to give your own consent without getting permission from your parents or guardians.

Usually, the doctor will encourage you to involve your parents or guardians in some way. Your doctor might offer to talk to your parents or guardians specifically about what’s going on for you. This might be really helpful and might make things much easier for you.

Your doctor might also offer to be vague and to let your parent/guardian know that you are seeing a doctor about ‘some health concerns’. This leaves it open for you to share as much or as little as you want with your parents.

If you refuse to let the doctor say anything to your parents or guardians, then the doctor is obliged keep your conversation confidential, unless there is a concern about safety. However, this may mean that they cannot treat you, for example, prescribe medication or refer you to see a counsellor.

I am under 16 years-old

The younger you are, the more likely it is that a health professional will want to involve your parents or guardians in some way.

If you are under 16 years-old, your doctor will usually want a parent or guardian with you during the appointment. This is to ensure that you get the best support and care possible.

Exceptions to the rule

An exception to this is when someone aged 18 years-old and over has an intellectual disability, or a mental health problem that seriously affects their ability to think clearly and make decisions about their health.

In this case,  another adult may be asked to provide consent on behalf of that person.

Things to remember about consent

Because the law is a bit unclear around consent and young people aged 16 to 17 years-old, different doctors may have different opinions.

If you are unsure whether your doctor would prescribe medication for you, refer you to see a counsellor, take a blood test or whatever the issue is for you, you could try phoning the clinic/health centre to ask the doctor these questions.

You could also make an appointment to discuss consent and confidentiality.

An older sibling or friend cannot consent on your behalf, it has to be someone who has parental responsibility for you.

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This article was last reviewed on 30 March 2017

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