The opinion in Canterbury v. Spence provides a great opportunity for discourse on the patient’s right to informed consent, which sometimes opposes what the physician may think is best for their patient. Just as soon as there is a rule regarding guidelines to informed consent, there is bound to be an exception to that rule.
As this case so clearly demonstrates, it is far from uncommon for a physician to be sued for malpractice in the event that something has gone wrong. Because of this constant threat, one might think that doctors would be completely on board with informing their patient as thoroughly as possible, if only to prevent cases like Canterbury v. Spence from happening. While ideally the fear of malpractice suits should not be the only factor motivating physicians to fully inform their patients, it may be a good starting point.
While Dr. Spence claims to have withheld the information because he had the patient’s wellness in mind, it seems reasonable that Canterbury may have been better served by being completely informed. When a minute but potentially significant risk is involved, it may be better to over share, especially if the patient is of sound mind, as Canterbury allegedly was. At that point, the patient has all the cards in his hand and makes a fully informed decision. This would also bring into account the relationship between the patient and physician. Ideally, the physician would be able to inform the patient of all potential risks and still trust that the patient would have enough faith in the physician’s educated opinion on what the course of action should be, as the doctor is clearly more well-versed on current medical practice.
An interesting point that O’neill brings up in his article “Some Limits of Informed Consent,” is how problematic informed consent can become when relating to issues of public health policy. The examples he gives are those of water purity levels and food safety requirements. It is simply not feasible to adjust these levels or regulations to individual choice, and it is unreasonable to assume that each individual would have the knowledge necessary to make a decision like that. The reason we have professionals who devote their lives to this field of study is for precisely that reason, and for the most part, we do well in trusting their expertise.
O’neill, O. “Some Limits of Informed Consent.” Journal of Medical Ethics 29.1 (2003): 4-7. Print.