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Social Work Ethics Empowerment: An Introduction to Informed Consent

Informed consent is a legal and ethical term that social workers should be familiar with. Legal documentation is required in all 50 states and varies from state to state. It is important to know the laws in your state. The concept originated with the recognition of individual rights to freedom, autonomy and dignity. It protects clients and clinicians.

According to a posting on, “Informed consent is the process of informing a client, patient, or research subject of the risks, benefits, expected outcome of a research project, medication, medical procedure, or therapeutic approach in which they have agreed to take part.” Informed consent is necessary before treatment begins or any time there is a change to the treatment plan.

The process of informed consent involves three (3) parts:

  1. Providing the client with information

  2. Evaluating the client’s capacity to understand the information

  3. Obtaining consent from the client

These three parts guide us in the NASW Code of Ethics with the following sections: Informed Consent (1.03), Access to Records (1.08 (b)), Clients Who Lack Decision Making Capacity (1.14), Evaluation and Research (5.02 (e), (f), (g), (h), (i). They are listed here for your review and are discussed in greater detail in my soon to be published book on social work ethics coming Fall 2018. A copy of the current Code can be found on NASW’s website

With the addition of reform to the Code around the use of technology for social workers, NASW has developed a social media policy around informed consent. NASW recommends that social workers inform clients/patients of social media usage in their practice and its potential risks. NASW also recommends that social media sites you may or may not use in your practice be identified as part of informed consent. More information about this can be found at

Some questions clients should have answered before giving informed consent include, but is not limited to: the name of the kind of therapy used; what is the competence of the therapist; possible risks; how long therapy will last; what if therapy is not working; does the social worker do therapy by phone or internet; cancellation policy; how appointments are scheduled; length of sessions and what if session goes over; how to reach the social worker in an emergency; the kind of records kept; fees; licensure; any limits to confidentiality; participation with insurance.

Let me know if you found this information to be helpful. More detailed information on this subject will be available in my soon to be published book on social work ethics. Please feel free to submit an ethics question/scenario for possible inclusion in a future blog or in my book.

Thank you for reading.

May 28, 2018

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