Consent to treatment

Explains your rights to consent to (or refuse) treatment, including what 'consent' means, when you can be treated without your consent, and how to make a complaint.

What does 'consent to treatment' mean?

Giving 'consent to treatment' means that you agree with a health professional about a treatment they've proposed for you, and you have said 'yes' to receiving that treatment.

Generally, you need to give your consent before receiving any treatment. If a healthcare professional gives you a treatment that you've not agreed to, this may be a criminal offence – although there are some exceptions.

To be able to consent to treatment, you need to:

You can change your mind at any time.

Example of consent not being given freely

Jamie is a voluntary patient in hospital receiving treatment for their mental health problem. One of the treatments available is group therapy, but Jamie really doesn't want to do this.

A member of staff tells Jamie that if they don't participate in group therapy then it's pointless for them to be there, and that if they try to leave, they will be sectioned.

Because of this Jamie agrees to doing group therapy. However, Jaime has been coerced (forced through pressure and threats) into agreeing, and so they have not given their consent freely.

What does capacity mean?

Having 'capacity' means having the ability to understand information and make decisions about your life. If you do not understand the information and are unable to make a decision about your treatment, you are said to 'lack capacity' to make decisions about that treatment.

To have capacity to consent to treatment, you must be able to:

  • understand the information relevant to the decision
  • retain that information
  • use or weigh that information as part of the process of making the decision, and
  • communicate your decision (whether by talking, using sign language or any other means).

For more information on what capacity means, see our pages on the Mental Capacity Act.

How can I get information about treatment?

In order to make a decision about treatment, you should have enough information about it to weigh up its possible advantages and disadvantages. It can help to ask your healthcare professional to answer any questions you have. For example:

  • Will it work?
  • Will you force me to have treatment?
  • How long will it take to work?
  • Does it have side effects?
  • Are the side effects permanent?
  • Is there anything to counter the side effects?
  • Are there any alternatives to this treatment?
  • What is their success rate?
  • Why are you recommending this treatment?
  • What care and treatment guidelines do the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) recommend for this diagnosis? (NICE is an independent organisation that provides national guidance on health and care in England and Wales.)
  • What will happen if I don’t have the treatment?

Remember, for information about medication, you can also speak to you local pharmacist.

Doctors should do their best to give you clear information about any suggested treatment. The General Medical Council's guidance for doctors says that they should help you make decisions about your treatment, otherwise they may put their registration at risk.

For more tips on getting clear, balanced information, see our pages on making sense of your options and being actively involved in treatment.

Will I be able to agree to treatment if I lack capacity to decide?

If you lack capacity to make a decision, the health professional in charge of your treatment will make the decision in your best interests. This includes, for example, talking to your family and friends when making this decision.

This could be treatment for a mental or physical health problem. Some more serious treatments can only be decided by the Court of Protection.

For more information about lacking capacity, see our pages on the Mental Capacity Act.

Example

Ali lives in a care home. He lacks capacity to decide whether to have life-saving treatment for a physical health problem because of his delusions. The Court of Protection will make a decision about whether he needs it, taking into account his wishes and feelings.

If you’re worried that you may lose capacity to make decisions about treatment in the future, there are some things you can do to plan ahead.

This information was published in March 2018. We will revise it in 2020.

References are available on request. If you would like to reproduce any of this information, see our page on permissions and licensing.

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