Getting consent when observing patients

A medical student found herself the subject of a patient complaint after she’d observed during an examination by a consultant neurologist.

The scenario

A patient lodged a complaint because he hadn't given permission for a student to be present during the consultation and felt confidentiality had been breached. The student thought the consultant had obtained the patient's consent beforehand, and the patient did not raise any objections during the consultation. She contacted the MDU to help her prepare a statement for the hospital complaints manager, and for advice on observing patients in future.

MDU advice

The student and the MDU's adviser discussed what had happened and agreed the best approach was to provide a factual account of the consultation, and to make it clear that the patient had at no time voiced concern about the student's presence. The adviser also suggested that the student apologise and explain she had assumed the patient had given consent before entering the room.

It is the examining doctor's responsibility to seek consent for a student to observe or examine a patient. If a patient is happy for a student to observe, it is usual for the doctor to introduce them to the patient and explain why they are there. However, to avoid a situation like this one, students can also introduce themselves and check that the patient is happy for them to observe.

The GMC's guidance Decision making and consent (2020) lists the type of information patients might consider relevant before deciding whether to consent to treatment or an investigation. This includes "the names and roles of key people who will be involved in their care, and who they can contact (and how) if they have questions or concerns". The patient can object to a student's presence and, if they do so, it will not affect the treatment they receive.

Occasionally - usually with intimate examinations - patients may give consent for a student to observe and then subsequently change their mind. If this happens, you should accept the patient's wishes and leave the room immediately.

This is a fictionalised case compiled from actual MDU case files.

Need help? Contact us

Student members can contact our medico-legal advisers with a query on 0800 716 646 between 8am and 6pm Monday to Friday, or email

This page was correct at publication on 13/03/2023. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.