Law & Medicine

Stay Informed About Informed Consent

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While reasonable clinicians can disagree (as can reasonable patients), clinicians are more likely to be closer in opinion. Clinicians are a smaller group whose opinions are underpinned by similar education, training, and experience. By contrast, among the general population, beliefs held by one hypothetical “reasonable person” are much less settled, and in some cases, wildly divergent from another’s. For example, vaccine skepticism would probably be considered unreasonable in the majority of jury pools but absolutely reasonable in some. The large size of the general population, coupled with opinions untethered to any definable discipline, make the reasonable patient standard hard to predict.

Additionally, the reasonable physician standard forces the plaintiff to prove his or her case by producing an expert witness (clinician) to specifically testify that the standard of care required the defendant clinician to disclose certain specific information, and that disclosure was lacking. That is an important requirement. Under patient-focused standards, the plaintiff doesn’t need a medical expert on this point and can simply argue to the jury that a reasonable patient would require an exhaustive discussion of each possibility in the differential diagnosis. Therefore, I would argue that the reasonable physician standard is more predictable and workable and should be followed.

At the time of this case, Wisconsin’s informed consent law was based on the reasonable patient standard. As a result of this case, Wisconsin lawmakers changed the law to a “reasonable physician standard,” which states “any physician who treats a patient shall inform the patient about the availability of reasonable alternate medical modes of treatment and about the benefits and risks of these treatments.”7 However, the law stipulates that this duty to inform does not require disclosure of (among others):

  • Detailed technical information that in all probability a patient would not understand
  • Risks apparent or known to the patient
  • Extremely remote possibilities that might falsely or detrimentally alarm the patient
  • Information about alternate medical modes of treatment for any condition the physician has not included in his or her diagnosis at the time the physician informs the patient.7

Finally, this case involved an extremely high verdict of more than $25 million. It may surprise you to learn that many states have caps for medical malpractice awards for noneconomic damages, such as pain and suffering. If you’re having a holiday dinner with friends or family members who are plaintiff’s attorneys and you’re itching for a good argument, skip current politics and go all-in: How about liability caps, Uncle Jim? Get ready for a lively debate.

Of the $25 million verdict, $16.5 million was awarded for pain and suffering—the jury was obviously shocked by the extent of the life-changing nature of the plaintiff’s injuries. At the time of this case, Wisconsin had a cap of $750,000 for noneconomic damages.8 However, plaintiffs may challenge state constitutionality of these caps when they feel they have the right case, which the plaintiff and her attorney felt they did. Two lower courts found the state cap unconstitutional and gave the plaintiff the full award. But the state Supreme Court later reversed that decision, upholding the cap.1 The court decided that the legislature had a rational basis for making the law and changes to it should occur through the legislature, not the courts. The dissenting justices argued that there was no rational basis for the $750,000 cap, because there was no evidence that clinicians would flee the state fearing malpractice liability, or practice more defensive medicine, or suffer runaway malpractice insurance premiums without the cap. As a result of this case, the cap was upheld, and there was a “lively debate” on this issue at the highest levels of government.

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