What is ‘Informed Consent’ & Why Does My Dentist Need It?

Consent forms are a sometimes overlooked but very important part of visiting any health care provider, including your dentist. Understanding these forms is critical both for seniors and for caregivers.

What are consent forms?

Do you remember signing a consent form the last time you went to the dentist? We’re often tempted to glance over these documents and quickly sign them, but the information they contain should be read carefully. Consent forms allow you to learn more about your treatment, ask questions, and talk to your doctor about your preferences for care. This process is especially important if you are a caregiver for a loved one.

During the first visit with a dentist, you may also be asked to sign a form that outlines the office’s policies. When you sign the office policy form, you allow dentists and their staff to take pictures of your teeth and perform basic procedures such as x-rays.

When reviewing consent forms — either for yourself or someone you are providing care for — feel free to ask questions and request a copy of the document to review later. Remember, a signature today does not bind you forever: you have a right to make changes or withdraw your consent in the future.

What is a treatment plan?

Following an exam, the dentist may create what’s called a “treatment plan.” This is a document that lists any treatments or procedures you may need. The dentist may then ask you to sign an additional consent form for the treatment plan. Signing this form acknowledges that you understand your treatment options, the procedures described, as well as the expected costs and results.

The treatment plan may also warn that dentistry is not an exact science, and situations can come up that cause plans to change. Some dentists prefer to show you several options, including the option of no treatment.

If you have complex care needs, your dentist may need several visits to develop a complete plan. You may be asked to give consent again before certain major procedures such as a tooth extraction.

Who makes the decisions about care?

In some cases, you may wish to provide consent on behalf of another person. To give consent, a person must be able to understand both their health problems and their treatment options. Because of this, children under the age of 18 and persons with dementia or other serious mental disability must have someone make decisions on their behalf.

If you’re tasked with making decisions on behalf of a loved one, most health professionals suggest trying to choose what the loved one would prefer.

How do I legally provide consent on behalf my loved one?

If you are the legal parent or guardian of someone under your care, you already have the power to make decisions for them. For other relationships, you will need to obtain what’s called  “durable power of attorney for health care” (DPAHC), or a “proxy” or “surrogate.”

How do I allow someone else to make decisions on my behalf?

If you believe you may one day be in a position where you won’t be able to make your own decisions about medical and dental treatments, you should take the time to select another person, or “proxy,” who will represent your interests later. Choose the person who best understands your preferences, and who can accurately express your wishes to health care providers.

Remember: informed consent is about more than signing papers. It allows the dentist to exchange information with patients. For effective treatment, dentists must be able to educate their patients or proxies about the procedures and their consequences. The patient or proxy must also be informed and able to express their desire for treatment.

About the Author

Deborah Carr, PHD candidate & Samuel R. Zwetchkenbaum, DDS, MPH
Carr is a PhD candidate at Rutgers University and Zwetchkenbaum is part of the New Jersey Institute for Successful Aging and with the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey School of Osteopathic Medicine

The information on this article is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Tooth Wisdom® and Oral Health America do not recommend or endorse any specific dentists, products, procedures, opinions, or other information mentioned. See full Terms & Conditions.

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