Informed Consent, Right to Refuse Treatment, and Other Things You Should Know About Patient’s Rights

If someone has a life-threatening health condition, should they be allowed to refuse treatment?

This complex question is at the heart of a debate over a Tampa couple and their three-year-old son. The boy, Noah, is battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia, a rare type of cancer. After his diagnosis, Noah’s parents agreed to chemotherapy treatments, while also trying alternative treatments like CBD oil, dietary changes, and alkaline water. However, they failed to show up for a third round of chemotherapy, and were found in Kentucky after a missing child alert was issued. Noah was removed from his parent’s custody, and the parents could potentially face child neglect charges. However, his parents are fighting to regain custody. They argue that that it is their right to decide if their child receives medical treatment.

In a case like there, there are many emotions and ethical challenges. But no matter which side you take, stay informed about your rights as a patient.

The Right to Informed Consent

When someone is faced with the decision to undergo a medical treatment, they have a right to informed consent. This means that their doctor or other health care provider must provide them with as much information as possible. Information might include details like:

  • Success and survival rates
  • Risks and side effects
  • Cost
  • Potential benefits
  • Any alternatives to the treatment

Once the patient has this information, it is generally up to them to decide if they would like to proceed. They can choose to go ahead with the treatment, pursue an alternative treatment, or forgo it altogether.

A Patient’s Rights

However, there are some instances where a patient may not have the right to refuse treatment. A patient might not be able to refuse treatment if they are:

  • in an altered mental state due to mental illness, drug or alcohol use, or a brain injury
  • in need of emergency medical treatment
  • a threat to the community, like if someone has a highly communicable disease
  • a threat to themselves or others, like a patient who is experiencing a severe psychiatric issue

Additionally, parents or guardians cannot refuse life-sustaining treatments for their child.

When someone refuses treatment, it is often a very personal choice. In cases of people with a terminal illness, they might choose to focus on “comfort” care. Others might be worried about the financial and emotional cost of life-sustaining measures and choose to have a “do not resuscitate” order. Additionally, some choose to refuse treatment for religious reasons or simply because they do not think it is the best option for them. It is not illegal for a competent adult to refuse treatment, though there are many cases where doctors warn against it.

Disclosure and Malpractice

If a doctor does not comply with a patient’s wishes or fails to disclose enough information to allow a patient to make an informed decision, it might fall under the umbrella of medical malpractice. For example, if a doctor failed to disclose a potential side effect of a new medication, leading to serious complications for the patient, they potentially committed malpractice by failing to adhere to the standard of care. Similarly, if a doctor performed life-saving measures on a patient with clearly stated “do not resuscitate” wishes, it might also be malpractice, especially if the measures lead to further injuries, like broken ribs from CPR.

While this might all seem relatively straightforward, informed consent and the right to refuse treatment can quickly become complicated. Like in the case with Noah, issues often arise when a patient is a child or unable to consent. Another local example of this famously occurred in Pinellas County in the early 2000s when the parents and husband of a woman in a persistent vegetative state clashed over whether or not to continue life-saving measures. Though cases like these are rare, they often end up in court to determine who can make the decisions for the patient.

Know Your Rights

When you are facing a new diagnosis, or if a loved one is ill and in need of treatment, there are many factors to consider, from cost to qualify-of-life. Regardless of your opinions or desires, it is incredible important to be aware of all your options and rights, so that you can make the right, informed decisions for yourself every step of the way.


The attorneys at Perenich, Caulfield, Avril & Noyes represent those involved in car accidents, motorcycle accidents, bicycle accidents, pedestrian accidents, and other types of personal injury matters. Our firm is one of the oldest personal injury law firms in Tampa Bay. There are no attorneys’ fees or costs unless we prevail for you. Call our office 24 hours a day at 727-796-8282 or simply click here to schedule a free case consultation.

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