Personal trainers or fitness professionals should consider informed consent agreements to protect themselves.

EVERYONE HAS FACED surgery or knows someone who has. If you fall into the first group, you may remember that, prior to the surgery, a staff person gave you some papers to sign. College students are often asked to participate in scientific studies as a subject (usually for extra credit or a small monetary payment). Prior to participating in the study, the student is given some papers to sign. In each case, one of those documents is an informed consent agreement.

Informed consent is a document used to protect the surgeon or the research scientist from liability for the informed risks of a treatment to which the signer is subjected. Before surgery, the hospital is warning the patient of the risks of the surgery or treatment -- informing the patient of the things that can go wrong. In the case of research scientists, they are warning the subject of the known potential risks of the experimental treatment or program. The thing that makes the informed consent unique is that something is done to the participant by another party with the consent of the participant.

What does that have to do with sport, recreation or fitness? Consider the personal trainer who plans an exercise regimen for a client. Is the personal trainer liable if the training program results in injury? Personal trainers or fitness professionals should consider informed consent agreements to protect themselves.

Informed consent agreements

Waivers are ineffective for doctors and research scientists because patients or subjects are putting themselves completely under the control of the professional. A somewhat similar situation exists when a client relies totally on the personal trainer or fitness professional.

The doctrine of informed consent derives from two principles:

1) a person's inherent right to control what happens to his/her body and 2) the professional's fiduciary duty to the client -- to warn the client of risks and make certain the client knows enough to make an informed decision regarding care. There are two separate, but related, components of informed consent: disclosure and consent.

Disclosure requires that all known treatment risks be disclosed to the client. It is important that the signer knows, understands and appreciates the nature of those risks. One of the functions of the agreement is to effectively inform the signer of the risks. Note that the objective is informed consent -- don't simply hand the agreement to clients and have them sign it. Go through the agreement with each client and explain the risks. Make sure they understand them.

Consent involves the capacity of the signer to consent (i.e., of legal age, intellectually capable of consent) and the fact that the consent for participation and signing must be voluntary with no duress.

When a client is asked to sign an informed consent in the fitness setting prior to embarking on a regimen of testing and/or activities, it is crucial that the client has been informed, in detail, of the program risks. It is, likewise, critical that the client voluntarily signs the agreement.

Guidelines

Following are a few guidelines that should be followed in preparing an informed consent agreement:

The agreement should 1) be in writing on a pre-printed form; 2) be written in plain, understandable language; 3) state the purpose of the exercise program, test or prescribed action; 4) describe the planned program or regimen; 5) list any likely discomforts; 6) name the potential risks and potential benefits; 7) include a participant acknowledgement of voluntary participation and absence of duress; and 8) include participant acknowledgment of understanding the agreement and the nature of the treatment or regimen.

The informed consent agreement is based in contract law; thus, the signing parties must be of majority age. If the client is a minor, it is critical to have one or both parents sign the agreement. Also, the informed consent is not a waiver of liability. Clients are not waiving their right to sue for negligence. This agreement simply shows that the client is aware of the treatment risks, and voluntarily assumes those risks.