Consent to Dental Treatment

Most people would accept that a dentist should not be able to carry out treatment on a patient without their prior consent to do so. But what does this mean?

The reality is that many patients simply open their mouth and accept whatever treatment the dentist provides with very little enquiry or understanding as to what is being done to them. Some dentists assume that patients are content to accept whatever treatment the dentist wishes to carry out as the ‘dentist knows best’, and some patients do prefer this – until the treatment goes wrong that is.

The patient must understand the basic nature of the procedure to be carried – for example, what does the dentist mean by root canal treatment? – and the patient must be told the advantages and disadvantages of the treatment that the dentist is recommending, compared to other treatments that might also be possible. Dentistry can be different from medicine and surgery, in that often there are a number of different ways of treating a particular dental problem. So the dental patient must understand all the alternative treatments and be able to choose sensibly between them.

Some dentists might say that the dentist should make the decision as to which treatment option is best for the patient as a patient cannot be expected to understand the technicalities of dental treatment. Of course the dentist is the technical expert and not the patient, but it is after all the patient’s body that is being operated upon and so it is the patient who should make the final decision as to what treatment is performed, not the dentist. The dentist must give the patient enough accurate information to make this decision. The dentist must not down-play the risks of treatment and must not discuss other treatments in such a way as to persuade a patient to accept the dentist’s preferred choice of treatment.

Signing a consent form does not mean that the dentist can carry out any treatment he likes. You still have to understand all the treatments that could have been done and choose between them.

A child of any age can agree to dental treatment as long as they understand the nature of the treatment and its consequences – even if the child’s parents or guardian refuses the treatment.