Consent to Treatment: A Closer Look
Section 10 of Ontario’s Health Care Consent Act 1996 (“the Act”) states that a health practitioner shall not administer a treatment for a person unless the person has given consent (if capable with respect to the treatment) or if the person’s substitute decision maker has given consent on the person’s behalf (if incapable with respect to the treatment). Simple concept at first blush, but a closer examination reveals some complexities, a handful of which we’ll explore below.
What constitutes informed consent?
One of the defining elements of consent to treatment, is that such consent must be “informed”. By framing consent in this way, the Act promotes communication between health practitioners and their patients or clients and encourages patients to exercise their autonomy. According to the Act, a consent to treatment is informed if, before giving it,
a) The person received the information about the treatment that a reasonable person in the same circumstances would require to make a decision and
b) The person received responses to his/her requests for additional information about the treatment.
Information provided by the health practitioner must include the nature of the treatment (diagnosis and recommended treatment), expected benefits, its material risks and side effects, alternative courses of action (if any) and the likely consequences of not having the treatment. If the patient is deemed to be incapable, then the practitioner must identify the substitute decision-maker (s. 20 (1) of the Act sets out a specific hierarchy of individuals/agencies who may give or refuse consent) and go through the same process to obtain consent.
In a tragic case decided in 2009 (upheld on appeal earlier this year) involving catastrophic injury to an infant sustained at birth as a result of an unsuccessful attempt at a forceps-assisted delivery, the trial judge found that the doctor in question failed to obtain informed consent to that procedure. Risks and benefits of the assisted delivery had not been explained to the mother, nor had the option of continuing to push been presented to her for consideration.
What constitutes informed refusal?
Election to forgo the treatment recommended by the practitioner after the disclosure of the relevant information constitutes “informed refusal”. A competent patient may refuse a treatment, even if it is in their best interests to have the treatment administered. The CMA Code of Ethics (2004) states that the practitioner has a responsibility to respect the right of a patient to reject any medical care recommended.
The Act considers refusal of consent to include withdrawal of consent.
When may the requirement for consent to treatment be waived?
Consent from a capable patient may be waived if the situation is deemed by the health practitioner to be an emergency (i.e. the person is experiencing severe suffering or is at risk of sustaining serious bodily harm if the treatment is not administered promptly). Similarly, a treatment may be given without consent to an incapable person if there is an emergency and the delay required to obtain consent/refusal on the person’s behalf will prolong the person’s suffering or will put the person at risk of sustaining serious bodily harm. Interestingly, in an emergency situation, in the event that a substitute decision-maker is present and refuses to consent to treatment and is not acting in accordance with prior known wishes or is not acting in the patient’s best interests, then s. 27 of the Act gives the practitioner the power to administer treatment despite the refusal.
What is the age of consent in Ontario?
Contrary to widespread belief, there is no age of consent in Ontario. Instead, the principles of capacity (to consent to treatment) are applied, as per s. 4 (1) of the Act, i.e. does the person understand the information that is salient to the decision, and do they appreciate the reasonably foreseeable consequences of a decision or a lack of decision. In short, the concept of maturity is used as the yardstick, rather than chronological age. The issue of age of consent has come under the spotlight in recent years as a result of Ontario’s school-based HPV (Human Papillomavirus) immunization program for Grade 8 girls. All of Ontario’s Public Health Units request parental consent before HPV immunization at school-based clinics. That being said, a student who is deemed to be capable with regards to consenting to or refusing the immunization has the right to do so, irrespective of whether their parent signed or did not sign the consent form on their behalf.
In their Consent to Treatment Policy (#4-05), the College of Physicians and Surgeons of Ontario supports this framework by stating that "the capacity to exercise independent judgment for health care decisions varies according to the individual and the complexity of the decision at hand. Physicians must make a determination of capacity to consent for a child just as they would for an adult."
- ‘Health practitioner’ refers to a member of a College under the Regulated Health Professions Act, 1991, a naturopath registered as a drugless therapist under the Drugless Practitioners Act or a member of a category of persons prescribed by the regulations as health practitioners. Examples include (but are not limited to) physicians, dentists, physiotherapists, and nurses.
- As per the HCCA, ‘treatment’ means anything that is done for a therapeutic, preventive, palliative, diagnostic, cosmetic or other health-related purpose, and includes a course of treatment, plan of treatment or community treatment plan.