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Understanding Patient Rights & Treatment Decisions

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  • 0:15 Patient Rights
  • 1:15 Treatment Decisions
  • 3:48 Competence
  • 5:08 Right to Refuse
  • 6:02 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Sometimes, the world of healthcare can be complicated. Conditions must be cured, and injuries must be healed, but the physician must always respect the right of the patient to make their own treatment decisions. We'll explore that idea in this lesson.

Patient Rights

What are your rights? You've got a right to remain silent, a right to vote, and a right to paaaaartay! Okay, that last one's more of a privilege. You know what other rights you have? You actually have a right to proper medical treatment. In the world of healthcare, we've got what are called patient rights, the moral rules of conduct a patient can expect to receive. A couple of things to discuss here: First, what is a patient? When we're talking about rights, this is actually important. A patient is a person being evaluated by a healthcare professional. Anyone who fits that description is a patient and has all the moral and legal rights of being a patient. Now, patients have several rights and we don't have time to cover all of them today. However, these rights do essentially boil down to a few major ideas, one of which is that patients have a right over their own bodies and that's where we'll be focusing. So, come on. Let's get to know some of your rights.

Treatment Decisions

Let's start by talking about patient rights over treatment decisions. This is really complex. Ready? Patients have a right over the final decisions about their treatment. Got it? It's actually a pretty basic idea. While we do respect the fact that healthcare professionals are highly trained and educated, at the end of the day, they must respect the autonomy, or personhood, of the patient. This is embodied in the idea of informed consent, which states that patients must be fully informed about medical options before they can make the best decision. The idea is that patients have a right to make their own medical decisions but they need to be well enough informed to do so. That's where the healthcare professional comes in. The physician has a moral and legal duty to fully disclose any and all information the patient needs to know. Informed consent generally comes from these things: understanding what treatment the doctor proposes, the purpose of the treatment, the risks of the treatment, and viable alternatives. A patient who fully understands these can claim to be informed enough to give their consent for a treatment to occur. However, being informed is actually only half of full consent. The other half is voluntary consent, which means that the patient has not been forced, manipulated, deceived, or coerced into making a treatment decision. Again, the whole goal here is to respect the individual autonomy of the patient so they have to make this decision without feeling pressured or being lied to. This means that trust and openness between the patient and healthcare professional is absolutely necessary. And this even means that physicians must admit when they make a mistake. Now, at first, this sounds like a bad idea, but actually, studies show that patients trust physicians more when they openly admit to their mistakes. Hiding a mistake or lying is denying a person information about their own body and treatment, which is a violation of their rights. One last aspect of voluntary consent is confidentiality. Patients have a right to expect that any and all medical information will stay between them and the physician. A breach of confidentiality could influence their treatment decision so, again, it's a major no-no.

Competence

So, patients have a right to control their own treatment decisions and doctors must get informed, voluntary consent before doing anything. Sounds simple enough, but like pretty much all of our rights, there are always exceptions. The major one in this case is competence, the ability to make a rational decision. While a patient is expected to make an informed decision, they must actually be competent enough to do so. When are people not competent enough to make a medical decision on their own? People with certain mental illnesses, people with brain injuries, and people who are intoxicated are all deemed legally incompetent. Also, and this is a big one, anyone under eighteen years old. It doesn't matter how bright your kid is, all children are legally unable to make medical decisions. So, what do we do? Well, those deemed not competent enough to make a major medical decision pass that right onto someone else, generally a parent or spouse, who can legally make decisions for them. In cases of extreme emergencies when no other person can be reached, the healthcare professionals themselves may make a decision under the moral guideline of 'do no harm.'

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