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Clinical issues on consent: some philosophical concerns
  1. R Worthington
  1. Correspondence to:
 Dr R Worthington, Medicines Policy Unit, Department of Pharmacology & Clinical Pharmacology, St George’s Hospital Medical School, London SW17 0RE, UK;


On occasions, laws on consent are subject to modification, largely on account of being subject to common law rather than statute—for example, in the UK. Guideline publications such as the UK Department of Health Reference Guide to Consent for Examination or Treatment are intended to provide information for clinicians on when and how to apply current laws in everyday clinical situations. While the extent to which guidelines influence clinician behaviour depends on how much they are read and followed, what is also relevant, and sometimes omitted from consideration, is discussion about underlying philosophical concepts.

This paper analyses philosophical weaknesses relating to English laws on consent, the main focus of attention being applied ethics and the rights of adults with incapacity. It draws comparisons between the US and the UK, and advocates changes in English law in order to help rectify weaknesses in patient protection. Discussion includes references to Scottish law, and the use of advance directives, and it voices concerns about over-reliance on “best interests” determinations. The problem is partly one of logical analysis, and what can happen is that best interests determinations fail to show proper respect for adults lacking the capacity to consent to examination or treatment on their own behalf. This is fundamentally a matter of rights, and requires further investigation and appropriate legal remedies in order to respond to ethical deficiencies in English law as it now stands.

  • Informed consent
  • law and consent
  • medical ethics and the law
  • advance directives
  • best interests
  • rights

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