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Know Before You Undergo: Consenting to a Colonoscopy

2017 March 30
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By Christopher Trudeau, JD, Professor of Law at Western Michigan University – Cooley Law School

“It’s time we check your colon,” your doctor tells you.

Who really likes to hear those words? But, eventually, most of us will. When you do, no doubt you’ll soon start thinking about a colonoscopy. In fact, your doctor will likely bring it up because colonoscopies have been shown to reduce deaths from colon cancer by 60 to 70 percent. But before you undergo one, be sure you understand your role in the process. You have a right to understand what’s happening.

You have a legal right to know

Before any patient undergoes a colonoscopy the patient must agree to the procedure after being informed about the procedure, its benefits and its alternatives.

The law calls this informed consent. For lawyers, a patient’s signature on a consent form is evidence that the patient agreed to have the procedure. You should make it a point to understand what precisely will happen during a colonoscopy. This includes the risks involved in the procedure, the expected problems that can arise during recovery, and any alternatives you may have.

You even have a right to know what might happen if you refuse a colonoscopy. However, the problem is that many providers use informed consent forms that are difficult to understand. So what can you do to make sure you truly give informed consent?

Do not be afraid to ask questions

If you only remember one tip, remember this: ask questions early and often. As soon as your doctor brings up the need for a colonoscopy, ask questions about the procedure itself, the risks and likelihood of complications, the alternatives, the recovery time and, importantly, the preparation needed.

If you don’t understand something on the consent form, ask for help. If you don’t understand that explanation, ask the doctor to simplify it. Before you sign that consent form, be sure you can explain the answers to these questions to your family members. If you can, then you likely understand it well enough.

Get the consent form long before the procedure

Another useful tip is to ask your doctor for the consent form early in the process. Ideally, your doctor should give you the consent form when you first schedule the colonoscopy. But too many doctors wait until you’ve already prepared for the colonoscopy, taken time off of work, and even put on a hospital gown to present you with the consent form. This isn’t the best time to make a calm, reasoned decision if you learn something new that makes you change your mind.

In the end, if you ask for the consent form and ask questions early and often, you will put yourself in the best position to be a truly informed patient. This will make your signature mean something and reduce misunderstandings that can lead to poor outcomes.

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