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It’s all about consent

27 September 2016

Mr K, a 37-year-old self-employed businessman, consulted his GP, Dr P, requesting sterilisation. Mr K stated that although he had two children, aged 17 and 9, he wished to undergo a vasectomy. Dr P explained to Mr K that the procedure was irreversible, and Mr K stated he still wished to go ahead and to use his private insurance. Hence, Dr P referred Mr K privately to a consultant urologist, Mr S.

The patient saw the urologist and was subsequently listed for a vasectomy. Mr S then carried out the procedure under local anaesthesia, with no immediate complications. A few days following the procedure, Mr K noticed some weeping from one of the wound sites, and attended Dr P, who prescribed him a course of antibiotics. By the end of the seven-day course, the situation had worsened with increasing weeping at the wound site as well as pain both at the wound site and in the testis and groin on that side; Mr K thus attended the Emergency Department (ED).

On assessment there his pain was reported as 10/10 and constant, thus not allowing him to sleep, despite oral paracetamol. He was discharged with co-codamol. Four days later Mr K attended a different ED and a diagnosis of post-vasectomy haematoma was made, and Mr K was again discharged with yet stronger analgesics. The following day the patient saw Dr P again and was advised to take a week off work. Things did not improve and the patient called Dr P the following day to see him at home, and was then subsequently admitted to hospital with a diagnosis of infected hydrocoele/haematoma. 

After hospital admission, the wound burst and the patient was taken to the operating theatre where the infected haematoma was drained. Two days later the patient was discharged home, and subsequently reviewed four weeks later in outpatients by Mr W, consultant urologist, who discharged him from further follow-up.

Mr K alleged breach of duty due to lack of informed consent on the part of Mr S. As the complication was handled appropriately and is a recognised complication of vasectomy, no issue of technical incompetence by Mr S was alleged. The claim thus solely related to a lack of informed consent; specifically, Mr K alleged that Mr S did not warn him before he consented about the possible complication he subsequently suffered. Mr K stated that he was uncertain about whether to go ahead with the vasectomy and if he had known about the potential complications, he would not have undergone the surgery.

The signed consent form was the key piece of evidence in this case. Mr K used a standard form of consent, but one in which all complications were not printed, and thus Mr S handwrote the complications of pain, bleeding, bruising, haematoma and infection at the bottom of the form. It was alleged by Mr K that Mr S did this after the claim was filed, and thus that Mr S doctored the consent form days after the procedure. This was proven to be untrue as a copy of the consent form was sent to Dr P with a letter stating these complications had been explained, on the same day as the initial consultation.

Dr P confirmed that Mr S did not have access to Mr K’s files after the procedure and thus could not have amended the consent form at a later date as alleged. Also, Mr S had a practice nurse sitting in during the consent procedure and she reiterated the complications to Mr K as well herself after the initial consultation, and this practice nurse confirmed that the consent procedure by Mr S was thorough and complete. The claim was therefore discontinued and costs were recovered from the claimant.

Learning points

  • This case illustrates one of the commonest reasons for litigation against doctors, and especially surgeons; that of issues of consent before a procedure. It is not uncommon for a patient to feel happy to proceed for a surgical procedure at the time of the procedure, but then to feel unhappy with that decision to proceed when he suffers a well-accepted complication.
  • Vasectomy is one of the most litigious procedures for urologists, although it is one of the simplest operations within that specialty. The procedure is typically day case and under local anaesthesia, taking an average of 20 minutes. However, the pre-procedure consent process and consultation typically lasts longer than this. Having copies sent to the patient’s GP and having a nurse during the consultation further safeguards against litigation.
  • When surgeons operate on patients in the private sector and their complications are then managed by different doctors in the public sector, patients can often feel aggrieved at the operating surgeon who is now ‘nowhere to be seen’. Good communication between all doctors involved in such situations can facilitate the optimal management of the patient, and thus lessen the risk of future litigation. This case provides a valuable lesson: however straightforward and routine the surgery might be, proper documentation is vital.
  • There were two missed opportunities to intervene here. The patient was left unhappy and aggrieved.
  • The surgeons should have given their contact details and been responsible for the follow-up arrangements.