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Making a difference: incorporating theories of autonomy into models of informed consent
  1. C Delany
  1. Dr C Delany, School of Physiotherapy, The University of Melbourne, 200 Berkely Street, Carlton 3010, Melbourne, Australia; c.delany{at}


Background: Obtaining patients’ informed consent is an ethical and legal obligation in healthcare practice. Whilst the law provides prescriptive rules and guidelines, ethical theories of autonomy provide moral foundations. Models of practice of consent, have been developed in the bioethical literature to assist in understanding and integrating the ethical theory of autonomy and legal obligations into the clinical process of obtaining a patient’s informed consent to treatment.

Aims: To review four models of consent and analyse the way each model incorporates the ethical meaning of autonomy and how, as a consequence, they might change the actual communicative process of obtaining informed consent within clinical contexts.

Methods: An iceberg framework of consent is used to conceptualise how ethical theories of autonomy are positioned and underpin the above surface, and visible clinical communication, including associated legal guidelines and ethical rules. Each model of consent is critically reviewed from the perspective of how it might shape the process of informed consent.

Results and discussion: All four models would alter the process of obtaining consent. Two models provide structure and guidelines for the content and timing of obtaining patients’ consent. The two other models rely on an attitudinal shift in clinicians. They provide ideas for consent by focusing on underlying values, attitudes and meaning associated with the ethical meaning of autonomy.

Conclusions: The paper concludes that models of practice that explicitly incorporate the underlying ethical meaning of autonomy as their basis, provide less prescriptive, but more theoretically rich guidance for healthcare communicative practices.

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  • Competing interests: None declared.

  • Funding: The paper arises from completed PhD study which was funded by a postgraduate scholarship from the NHMRC

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