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Before You Save a Life: Understanding Medical Consent

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Updated September 27, 2011

There is an assumption that everyone who needs help wants it. That is not always true. In order to care for someone in need, you must have permission. In the medical field, permission is called consent.

Touching someone without his or her consent can be assault or even battery. It is especially true if a victim has expressly forbidden you from touching him or her. Medical consent comes in two forms: expressed or implied.

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Expressed (Verbal) Consent

Expressed consent is communicated to you either verbally or in written form. The victim tells you it is ok to provide assistance. The victim must be able to clearly communicate his or her wishes for expressed consent to count.

Implied Consent

Implied consent happens when you are unable to communicate with the victim. Most commonly, this is because the victim is unconscious.

When a victim cannot express his or her wishes, there is an assumption that they would ask for help if they could.

Consent is also implied for victims who speak a language you don't understand. When a victim can't verbally communicate, body language and other nonverbal cues are used instead. In other words, if the victim doesn't let you help, that means "no."

Who Can Consent?

Expressed consent must come from adults who are not impaired.

Intoxicated, developmentally disabled, confused, or underaged victims are considered to have implied their consent. The assumption is that the victims or their legal guardians would ask for help if they were able to do so.

When in Doubt, Assume You Have Consent

Any time you are unsure of the victim's wishes and communication isn't clear, it's important to help. Safety is always paramount; victims who don't want your help may make their wishes clear nonverbally. Don't get hurt trying to give someone help they won't take.

For the first aid provider, consent is not nearly as important as it is for an emergency medical service professional. You should not let the sometimes confusing issue of consent prevent you from helping your neighbors in our world.

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