When a doctor recommends treatment, the doctor is required to inform the patient of the risks involved with that treatment. Legally, this concept is called informed consent. It means that in order to consent to medical treatment, a patient first needs to be properly informed of the risks. (
You are entitled to understand.
We all have different comfort levels with doctors. We all have different experience in medical settings, whether that is in dealing with our own health issues, caring for our children, or helping aging parents navigate health care. As a medical malpractice lawyer, I have nearly two decades of experience discussing medical issues with doctors and asking questions until I understand. After all, to explain a medical concept to a jury, I have to understand it myself. As a result, I understand “medical speak” pretty well, but I also feel very comfortable asking questions until I understand.
But the law doesn't require being a trained lawyer to understand medical concepts. The law requires that patients be informed. And doctors are trained in medical school to explain issues to patients in commonly understood words so that people with no medical training can understand.
How does communication breakdown?
To communicate effectively your doctor has to listen. Your doctor is required to factor in your unique medical history so that you can make informed decisions about medical treatment. If your doctor doesn't ask about your medical history or listen when you explain about side effects you are experiencing, there's no way they can communicate appropriate medical advice to you effectively.
Your doctor should also take into account your frame of mind. Are you woozy from medication? Frazzled? Overwhelmed by a spouse’s diagnosis? Then you may not be in the right frame of mind to understand complicated medical issues. Your conversation needs to wait until you are ready to understand.
Your doctor should choose words everyone understands. If your doctor explains medical issues using complicated medical words and you don't understand, you should feel empowered to push back and ask them to explain it again. You should never ever feel foolish for doing this. It is your doctor that is foolish for not taking time to explain things using easily understood concepts. Feel confident asking these sorts of questions:
- “Could you please explain that again?”
- “Could you use less technical language?”
- “Could you draw a diagram?”
- “I understand ___ but need you to explain the second part again.”
Good communication means better health outcomes.
Good medical care comes from good communication between patients and doctors. Doctors who communicate well are also less likely to be sued for medical malpractice. Good communication means patients understand how to identify complications. It also means that doctors can effectively work with others to provide great care to you. For example, you want your primary care doctor to be able to effectively share information with other specialists and to collaborate on your behalf.
Can I sue a doctor for a lack of informed consent?
Yes. In Washington DC, the law is that every person has the right to make an informed decision about whether or not to undergo a medical treatment. A doctor has a duty to inform the patient of his or her medical condition, the proposed treatment, and the likelihood and degree of the benefits and alternatives. Virginia states the law a little differently, but it means the essentially the same thing - a doctor is required to give the patient information about the treatment and its risk that would be given by a reasonably prudent doctor. (This means the doctor is required to explain things the way an average doctor would. The law does not require a doctor to be an extraordinarily good communicator.)
If you are concerned that lousy communication by a Washington, DC or Virginia doctor resulted in an injury, call or email Allyson at Kitchel Law for help.