Medicolegal Issues

Informed consent: The more you know, the more you and your patient are protected

A dubious case of informed consent illustrates the essentials of an ever-changing process

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CASE: Surgeon accused of performing tubal ligation without consent

A patient was scheduled for an elective cesarean delivery to be performed by her ObGyn (Dr. Surgeon) at the nearby medical center. The patient was asked to sign an electronic signature pad in her ObGyn’s office, which transposed her signature onto an electronic form that she could not see at the time. She signed it. The consent was not printed out in the office but was added to her electronic medical record, and a copy was sent to her via email. Among other things, the consent included, “[Name] hereby agrees that all appropriate medical and surgical procedures as determined by the physicians and others in this hospital are in my best interest. No further consent is required to any of the treatment in this hospital.”

In the hospital, Dr. Surgeon spoke preoper- atively with the patient about cesarean delivery, the various risks and benefits, and the possibility and risks of an alternative trial of labor. Dr. Surgeon noted the conversation in the patient’s chart.

A nurse brought a standard hard copy “Zee Hospital Surgical Consent Form” to the patient. In a relevant part it provided, “I hereby consent to the surgical procedure Dr. Surgeon has discussed with me: _______” (the blank was filled in with “cesarean delivery”). The form continued: “He/She has explained the risks and benefits. I also authorize Dr. Surgeon, and such assistants as he/she may select, to perform this procedure. In his/her medical judgment, if additional procedures are appropriate, I hereby consent to their performance, in addition to the procedures listed in this form.” The patient signed the form.

While Dr. Surgeon was scrubbing for the delivery, the patient’s husband (also a surgeon at the hospital; Dr. Husband), stopped by, thanked Dr. Surgeon, and said, “Oh, by the way, my wife would like you to do a tubal ligation as well—she really wants it for health reasons. Her chronic hypertension skyrocketed during this pregnancy, and we don’t want any more children.”

“She didn’t mention that a little earlier while I was talking with her,” replied Dr. Surgeon, “but I can see how it would have slipped her mind.”

Dr. Surgeon performed the cesarean delivery and tubal ligation. All went well, with a healthy baby and mother. Several months later, the patient and Dr. Husband separated and sought divorce.

The patient, surprised by the cost of the hospital bill (Dr. Surgeon did not bill for his surgical services as a professional courtesy), was astonished to see a charge related to tubal ligation. Knowing how common billing mistakes were at Zee Hospital, she called to have the bill corrected. The clerk informed her that her medical record showed that a tubal ligation had been performed and that the bill was correct.

The patient sued Dr. Surgeon, Zee Hospital, and her (now former) husband, Dr. Husband, both for the cesarean delivery and the tubal ligation. Her claims are primarily based on the lack of informed consent.

What’s the verdict?

The patient likely has a strong case regarding the tubal ligation claim, but a weak case related to the cesarean delivery claim.

Read the ethical, medical, and legal implications of this case


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