Major societal changes affecting the provision of child health care have occurred over the last few decades. In the area of emergency services, consent for medical treatment is an important issue. The purpose of this statement is to outline major considerations involving consent and provide the physician with practical guidelines concerning this issue.

Today fewer than one third of children live in two-parent families in which only the father works outside the home.1,2 Because of foster care placement, or temporary or permanent arrangements with relatives or friends, parents may not be available to give consent for treatment of their children.3-6

Unaccompanied minors may seek medical attention in any one of a number of locations. Some go to the emergency department, 14% of which have no policy regarding consent for the care of these patients.7 Unaccompanied minors younger than 18 years of age account for 3.4% of all emergency department visits.7 Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia now have laws concerning the "mture minor." Most other states have provisions in which competent minors may arrange for care involving contraceptives, pregnancy, abortion, sexually transmitted diseases, drug and alcohol abuse, and psychiatric disorders.8

The dilemma for emergency physicians and practicing pediatricians alike is whether to follow a strict interpretation of the law or to adopt a more practical approach. Clearly, consent is not required in life- or limb-threatening emergencies,8,9 although the definition of emergency varies from state to state. However, in most instances, only routine care, not emergency care, is needed. As a result, many physicians fear charges of battery or litigation should their judgement regarding treatment be questioned.8

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