Background: Although informed consent is an integral part of clinical practice, its current doctrine remains mostly a matter of law and mainstream ethics rather than empirical research. There are scarce empirical data on patients' perceived purpose of informed consent, which may include administrative routine/courtesy gesture, simple honest permission, informed permission, patient-clinician shared decision-making, and enabling patient's self decision-making. Different purposes require different processes.
Methods: We surveyed 488 adults who were planning to undergo or had recently undergone written informed consent-requiring procedures. Perceptions of informed consent purpose (from norm and current practice perspectives) were explored by asking respondents to rank (1 = most reflective) 10 randomly-presented statements: "meaningless routine", "courtesy gesture" "litigation protection", "take away compensation rights", "inform patient', "make sure patient understand", "document patient's decision", "discover patient's preferences", "have shared decision", and "help patient decide".
Results: Respondents' mean (SD) age was 38.3 (12.5); 50.4% were males, 56.8% had ≥ college education, and 37.3% had undergone a procedure. From the norm perspective, the least reflective statement was "meaningless routine" (ranked 1-3 by 2.6% of respondents) and the most reflective statements were "help patient decide", "make sure patient understand", and "inform patient" (ranked 1-3 by 65%, 60%, and 48% of respondents with median [25%,75%] ranking scores of 2 [1,5], 3 [2,4], and 4 [2,5], respectively). Compared to their counterparts, males and pre-procedure respondents ranked "help patient decide" better, whereas females and post-procedure respondents ranked "inform patient" better (p = 0.007 to p < 0.001). Age was associated with better ranking of "help patient decide" and "make sure patient understand" statements (p < 0.001 and p = 0.002, respectively), which were ranked 1-3 by only 46% and 42% of respondents from the current practice perspective (median ranking score 4 [2,6], p < 0.001 vs. norm perspective for both).
Conclusions: 1) the informed consent process is important to patients, however, patients vary in their views of its purpose with the dominant view being enabling patients' self decision-making, 2) males, pre-procedure, and older patients more favor a self decision-making purpose, whereas females and post-procedure patients more favor an information disclosure purpose, and 3) more self decision-making and more effective information disclosure than is currently practiced are desired. An informed consent process consistent with Mill's individual autonomy model may be suitable for most patients.