Informed consent is a big topic in medicine. It allows patients to determine which prescription to fill and which treatment to receive, even if their wishes go against the recommendations of their doctor, who may wish to do things a little differently. Informed consent laws require doctors to inform patients of significant risks in medical procedures, as well as specific risks which may be important to that particular patient. They have to explain alternative treatments and risks.
Consent because you’ve agreed to whatever action is taking place or is about to take place, and informed, because you know what you’re agreeing to.
It wasn’t always this way. In fact, there is a very sordid history which brought these laws into being. Delving into the horrors of medical experimentation is beyond the scope of this post, but the idea of informed consent is something I’ve been thinking about a lot in other contexts–and I think there’s a lot we can take away from it in how we treat people in our personal and professional lives.
The history of informed consent, and ways its been imbued into consciousness, means that I can go to the dentist, refuse nitrous oxide, change my mind and decide I want nitrous, and then, after about ten minutes, decide I’m sufficiently sedated and no longer want the mask on my face. This is exactly what happened to me yesterday–with medical professionals accomodating my requests, even as they changed on the fly. Following my dental work yesterday, I went to an acupuncturist for tuina (yes, I had quite the day), and after he worked on a nagging injury and was about to put in some needles, I told him I couldn’t deal with any more needles that day–even though I respond quite favorably to needles and have gotten a lot of acupuncture in the past. I didn’t get the hard sell or a list of why I was making the wrong decision. Not all medical professionals do informed consent well, but the ones who do are appreciated more than they might realize. And I think the rest of the world could take note.
In an excellent blog post, Seth Godin talks about de-escalation in a business context. “What if we don’t try to turn shopping desire into a fever pitch? What if later is just as good, or better, than now?” he asks. “What if we back off occasionally instead of pressing forward? What if playing the game starts to become at least as important as winning it?” Godin points out that de-escalation creates connection, trading a one-time benefit for a long-term relationship. If your goal is running a business, for example, your best bet is to build trust for the long haul. (I wrote about this on Copyblogger years ago: Build your business by walking away from the sale.)
Clearly, a doctor-patient relationship is important, and building trust with clients and potential clients is crucial for business. But this goes beyond doing the minimum to avoid lawsuits or poor rapport. It’s about respecting people as autonomous individuals, not means to an end. And this has implications in our personal lives as well as our professional lives.
Recently, I linked to Amanda Hess’ amazing article on ‘gray rape’ and the limits of verbal communication in establishing consent, though her piece was obviously not about medicine. (This somewhat controversial term was described in the New York Times back in 2007.) Hess points out that ‘gray rape’ may help people discuss sexual assault outside of the context of the legal system, but that it “shouldn’t be used to excuse the aggressor” but rather “help raise the standard of what we all consider acceptable sexual behavior, whether or not the cops are called.” What if we spent less time arguing about legal nuances of specific incidents and more time focusing on how we can create a world where people made the decision to treat others with respect?
When we truly care about people we interact with instead of seeing them as a means to an end, no matter what the context, “gray” areas become much clearer. Here’s for a world with more informed consent and less manipulation, where we focus on the spirit, rather than the letter, of the law.