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Patients' rights--why the Australian courts have rejected 'Bolam'.
  1. M Kirby

    Abstract

    This point of view compares the issue of informed patient consent primarily as it operates in Australia and the United Kingdom. It affords an overview, also, of the applicable law in the United States and Canada. It particularly focuses on the legal test to be applied to patient consent as established in the Bolam case in the United Kingdom. The case, following its approval by the House of Lords, holds that the negligent standard in patient consent situations is to be determined, in cases of dispute, in accordance with standards as viewed by a proper body of competent medical practitioners. By contrast, the law in the United States is premised on the notion of the fundamental right of patients to determine what should or should not be done with their own bodies. In Australia the Bolam test has been rejected by the High Court of Australia following earlier decisions in the State Supreme Courts. The Australian courts did not accept that the setting of standards by the medical profession was an acceptable way of determining the entitlements of a patient who has suffered harm. The author places this discussion in the context of greater community awareness of medical procedures, the heightened accountability of professionals and the increasing practice of having a substantial patient input into medical decisions. He also suggests that the differing social and professional attitudes to authority and fundamental rights to be found between Australia and the United Kingdom have influenced the outcome of the cases in the higher courts of both countries. He suggests that the Bolam test is an illustration of the tendency of authority in the United Kingdom to believe that 'Nanny know best'.

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