Guidance for all doctors
This guidance is for all doctors, but it may also be useful for children, young people1, those with an interest in their care, and anyone else who wants to know what guidance doctors are given.
The guidance is for all doctors, whether or not they routinely see children and young people as patients. Doctors should also be aware of the needs and welfare of children and young people when they see patients:
- who are parents or carers2
- who are cared for by children or young people, or
- who may represent a danger to children or young people.
Medical practice states that doctors must safeguard and protect the health and well-being of children and young people. Well-being includes treating children and young people as individuals and respecting their views, as well as considering their physical and emotional welfare.
When treating children and young people, doctors must also consider parents and others close to them; but their patient must be the doctor’s first concern.
When treating adults who care for, or pose risks to, children and young people, the adult patient must be the doctor’s first concern; but doctors must also consider and act in the best interests of children and young people.
Children and young people may be particularly vulnerable and need to be protected from harm; they can often find it difficult accessing services or defending their rights; and they often rely on others for their well-being. They may have particular communication needs and may need help to make decisions.
Children and young people are individuals with rights that should be respected. This means listening to them and taking into account what they have to say about things that affect them. It also means respecting their decisions and confidentiality.
Doctors should always act in the best interests of children and young people. This should be the guiding principle in all decisions which may affect them. But identifying their best interests is not always easy. This is particularly the case in relation to treatment that does not have proven health benefits or when competent young people refuse treatment that is clearly in their medical interests. There can also be a conflict between child protection and confidentiality, both of which are vitally important to the welfare of children and young people.
Reaching satisfactory answers to these challenging questions may mean considering a number of difficult ethical and legal issues. The purpose of this guidance is to help doctors balance competing interests and make decisions that are ethical, lawful and for the good of children and young people.
The law relating to children and young people is complex and differs across the UK. Doctors who have children and young people as patients will need some understanding of the law as it applies where they practise. Summaries of the law contained in this guidance cannot be a substitute for up-to-date legal advice in individual cases.3
Medical defence bodies and employers’ solicitors may be able to give legal advice where there is uncertainty about how a particular decision might be viewed in law. The case law surrounding treatment of very ill neonates (infants at any time during the first 28 days of life) is particularly complex. You should consider our guidance on Treatment and care towards the end of life and obtain specialist legal advice as necessary in this area.
When in doubt as to their responsibilities, doctors should seek the advice of experienced colleagues, named or designated doctors for child protection, or professional or regulatory bodies.