The appropriate level of detail to disclose regarding a physician’s experience may need to be assessed on a case-by-case basis, and the principles of informed consent can help. Informed consent requires understanding of the diagnosis, the treatment options including nonintervention, and the risks and benefits of each alternative. In obtaining informed consent, we must disclose “any facts which are necessary to form the basis of an intelligent consent by the patient to the proposed treatment.”9 Providers must determine what aspects of a trainee’s experience level are relevant to the risk-benefit analysis in a given set of circumstances. Surely, there is a large degree of subjectivity in this determination as data are limited, but information deemed relevant must be shared. Information that is inconsequential, on the other hand, may be omitted. It could even be argued that more detailed information, especially if it may cause anxiety, would be detrimental to share. For example, we would not list the chemical name of every preservative in every vaccine we recommend for children if there is no evidence of inflicting harm. If the information has not been shown to have clinical impact or affect safety concerns, the anxiety may be undue.
Withholding Information Can Violate Ethical Principles
We must be careful not to withhold details of our experience level with a particular procedure for the wrong reasons. It would be wrong, for example, to withhold information simply to avoid causing anxiety, which could be seen as an invocation of therapeutic privilege, a controversial practice of withholding important information that poses a psychological threat to the patient. A classic example is the physician who defers disclosure of a terminal diagnosis to preserve hope. Although therapeutic privilege theoretically promotes the principle of beneficence, it violates the principles of autonomy and right to truth and therefore generally is regarded as unethically paternalistic in modern medical ethics.9
Patients Can Refuse Trainee Participation
It also is unethical to withhold information to obtain consent and avoid refusal of our care. Refusal of trainee participation is not uncommon. In the aforementioned study of bariatric surgery patients, 92.4% supported their procedure being performed at a teaching hospital, but only 56% would consent to a resident assisting staff during the procedure. A mere 33% of those patients would consent to a resident primarily performing with staff assisting.3 Although the proportion of patients who refuse certainly depends on the type of procedure among other factors, it is a reality in any teaching environment. The training paradigm in medicine depends on being able to practice procedures with supervision before we are independent providers. If patients refuse our care, our training suffers. However, the AMA maintains that “[p]atients are free to choose from whom they receive treatment,”1 and we must respect this aspect of patient autonomy.
When it comes to the performance of procedures, there are a few basic principles to keep in mind to provide ethical care to our patients while we are in training. Although we must accept that a crucial part of learning dermatologic procedures is hands on with real patients, we also need to come prepared having learned what we can through reading and practice with cadavers or skin substitutes. Procedures we execute as residents should be performed with adequate supervision, and as we progress through residency, we should be given increased autonomy and graded responsibility to prepare us for independent practice at graduation. Although it is the responsibility of the attending physician to provide appropriate oversight for the resident’s level of training, we should feel empowered to ask for help and have the humility to know when we need it.