The Duty of Doctors to Inform Patients


Doctors have a duty to give patients certain information so they can make decisions about health care with knowledge of the possible impact it will have. A patient’s agreement to health care is only valid if the patient has received this information.  In legal terms, the patient’s agreement is called “consent”. 

The information given by the doctor gives the patient a full understanding of the consequences of the treatment the doctor is suggesting.  

Information that must be provided 

Here are some examples of the information doctors must provide to patients: 

  • diagnosis 
  • nature, purpose and seriousness of the recommended procedure or treatment 
  • risks of the recommended procedure or treatment  

Doctors must tell patients about the possible negative impact of a treatment or procedure. However, doctors can’t be expected to reveal every possible risk: they must explain risks with a realistic chance of happening and rare risks that could have serious and unusual side-effects. 

In some situations, doctors must give patients the more complete and specific information about risks. For example, this is the case for purely experimental treatments, such as clinical trials, and for procedures that don’t provide any health benefits, such as some plastic surgery. In these situations, doctors must explain all the possible risks to the patient, even if they rarely happen. 

A doctor’s obligation to give information also includes the duty to answer a patient’s questions.  

The doctor’s duty to inform includes not only the patient, but also people who make decisions on behalf of the patient. For example, someone might make a decision on behalf of a patient who is a incapable adult, a child under the age of 14 or a child 14 to 17 years old.  

With this information from the doctor, these people can give consent to the health care being suggested, or refuse it, with full knowledge of the possible consequences. 

Cooperating With a Patient’s Relatives 

Doctors must cooperate with relatives of patients. But since doctors must respect their patients’ right to confidentiality, they can only tell relatives about a serious diagnosis if the patient agrees to this.