A typology of shared decision making, informed consent, and simple consent

Ann Intern Med. 2004 Jan 6;140(1):54-9. doi: 10.7326/0003-4819-140-1-200401060-00012.


Enhancing patient choice is a central theme of medical ethics and law. Informed consent is the legal process used to promote patient autonomy; shared decision making is a widely promoted ethical approach. These processes may most usefully be seen as distinct in clinically and ethically important respects. The approach outlined in this article uses a model that arrays all medical decisions along 2 axes: risk and certainty. At the extremes of these continua, 4 decision types are produced, each of which constrains the principal actors in predictable ways. Shared decision making is most appropriate in situations of uncertainty, in which 2 or more clinically reasonable alternatives exist. When there is only 1 realistic choice, patient and physician may gather and exchange information; however, the patient cannot be empowered to make choices that do not exist. In contrast, informed consent does not require the presence of clinical choice; it is appropriate for all decisions of significant risk, even if there is only one option. When a clinical decision contains both risk and uncertainty, shared decision making and informed consent are both appropriate. For decisions of lower risk, consent should still be present, but it can be simple rather than informed. Clinicians may use this analysis as a guide to their own interactions with patients. In the continuing effort to provide patients with appropriate decisional authority over their own medical choices, shared decision making, informed consent, and simple consent each has a distinct role to play.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, P.H.S.
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Decision Making*
  • Goals
  • Humans
  • Informed Consent* / legislation & jurisprudence
  • Patient Participation*
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Risk Factors
  • United States