What are the legal requirements of informed consent?

States have developed informed consent laws to govern certain types of communication between health providers and patients. These laws list the types of information that patients must be given so they can make an informed decision about getting medical care, diagnostic tests, or treatment.

These laws apply to doctors and sometimes to nurses. They vary from state to state. Some states have very specific laws about certain situations. For instance, some states dictate certain information be given about clinical trials (scientific studies of promising new treatments). Another difference is that some states call only for “reasonable” information; but others require “full and complete disclosure.” (Disclosure means making information known.) If you want to check with your state to find out more about the laws where you live, see the section called “How can I find out more?”

In general, informed consent assumes that you are legally able to make your own decisions. If you are not, the person who is legally allowed to make decisions for you goes through the same process on your behalf (see “Who besides the patient is allowed to consent?” below).

For informed consent to take place, the information that’s given must be understood. This responsibility is shared by the patient, since the doctor won’t know what you don’t understand unless you ask about it. The patient must have the chance to review the information and ask questions.

And finally, informed consent assumes that when you make your decision, you are not pressured – you freely choose based on what you feel is best for you.

Informed consent for a clinical trial is usually required to be more detailed and thorough than consent for a standard medical procedure or treatment. This is because there’s a bigger chance of unknown effects with new treatments, and it’s even more important that you know about these possibilities. (See the section, “How is informed consent for a clinical trial or research study different from consent for standard treatment?”)

To learn more about clinical trials, read Clinical Trials: What You Need to Know online or call us for a free copy. You can also watch our online video, Exploring the Options: Clinical Trials.

The American Cancer Society medical and editorial content team

Our team is made up of doctors and oncology certified nurses with deep knowledge of cancer care as well as journalists, editors, and translators with extensive experience in medical writing.

Last Medical Review: May 20, 2016 Last Revised: July 28, 2014

American Cancer Society medical information is copyrighted material. For reprint requests, please see our Content Usage Policy.