Health workers’ perspectives on informed consent for caesarean section in Southern Malawi

Wouter Bakker*, Siem Zethof, Felix Nansongole, Kelvin Kilowe, Jos van Roosmalen, Thomas van den Akker

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to JournalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Objective: Informed consent is a prerequisite for caesarean section, the commonest surgical procedure in low- and middle-income settings, but not always acquired to an appropriate extent. Exploring perceptions of health care workers may aid in improving clinical practice around informed consent. We aim to explore health workers’ beliefs and experiences related to principles and practice of informed consent. Methods: Qualitative study conducted between January and June 2018 in a rural 150-bed mission hospital in Southern Malawi. Clinical observations, semi-structured interviews and a focus group discussion were used to collect data. Participants were 22 clincal officers, nurse-midwives and midwifery students involved in maternity care. Data were analysed to identify themes and construct an analytical framework. Results: Definition and purpose of informed consent revolved around providing information, respecting women’s autonomy and achieving legal protection. Due to fear of blame and litigation, health workers preferred written consent. Written consent requires active participation by the consenting individual and was perceived to transfer liability to that person. A woman’s refusal to provide written informed consent may pose a dilemma for the health worker between doing good and respecting autonomy. To prevent such refusal, health workers said to only partially disclose surgical risks in order to minimize women's anxiety. Commonly perceived barriers to obtain a fully informed consent were labour pains, language barriers, women’s lack of education and their dependency on others to make decisions. Conclusions: Health workers are familiar with the principles around informed consent and aware of its advantages, but fear of blame and litigation, partial disclosure of risks and barriers to communication hamper the process of obtaining informed consent. Findings can be used to develop interventions to improve the informed consent process.

Original languageEnglish
Article number33
JournalBMC medical ethics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2021

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Copyright 2021 Elsevier B.V., All rights reserved.


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