Consent: patients and doctors making decisions together

Part 1: Principles


All healthcare involves decisions made by patients and those providing their care. This guidance sets out principles for good practice in making decisions. The principles apply to all decisions about care: from the treatment of minor and self-limiting conditions, to major interventions with significant risks or side effects. The principles also apply to decisions about screening.1 


Testing of healthy or asymptomatic people to detect genetic predispositions or early signs of debilitating or life threatening conditions.


Whatever the context in which medical decisions are made, you must work in partnership with your patients to ensure good care. In so doing, you must:

  1. listen to patients and respect their views about their health
  2. discuss with patients what their diagnosis, prognosis, treatment and care involve
  3. share with patients the information they want or need in order to make decisions
  4. maximise patients’ opportunities, and their ability, to make decisions for themselves
  5. respect patients’ decisions.



For a relationship between doctor and patient to be effective, it should be a partnership based on openness, trust and good communication. Each person has a role to play in making decisions about treatment or care.


No single approach to discussions about treatment or care will suit every patient, or apply in all circumstances. Individual patients may want more or less information or involvement in making decisions depending on their circumstances or wishes. And some patients may need additional support to understand information and express their views and preferences.


If patients have capacity to make decisions for themselves, a basic model applies:

  1. The doctor and patient make an assessment of the patient’s condition, taking into account the patient’s medical history, views, experience and knowledge.
  2. The doctor uses specialist knowledge and experience and clinical judgement, and the patient’s views and understanding of their condition, to identify which investigations or treatments are likely to result in overall benefit for the patient. The doctor explains the options to the patient, setting out the potential benefits, risks, burdens and side effects of each option, including the option to have no treatment. The doctor may recommend a particular option which they believe to be best for the patient, but they must not put pressure on the patient to accept their advice.
  3. The patient weighs up the potential benefits, risks and burdens of the various options as well as any non-clinical issues that are relevant to them. The patient decides whether to accept any of the options and, if so, which one. They also have the right to accept or refuse an option for a reason that may seem irrational to the doctor, or for no reason at all.2 
  4. If the patient asks for a treatment that the doctor considers would not be of overall benefit to them, the doctor should discuss the issues with the patient and explore the reasons for their request. If, after discussion, the doctor still considers that the treatment would not be of overall benefit to the patient, they do not have to provide the treatment. But they should explain their reasons to the patient, and explain any other options that are available, including the option to seek a second opinion.

Mental health laws across the UK set out the circumstances in which an individual may be compulsorily assessed and treated for a mental disorder, without their consent. See the legal annex for more information about the legislation across the UK.


If patients are not able to make decisions for themselves, the doctor must work with those close to the patient and with other members of the healthcare team. The doctor must take into account any views or preferences expressed by the patient and must follow the law on decision-making when a patient lacks capacity.3 


See paragraphs 62 - 63 and the legal annex for an overview of the relevant legislation.