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Legal Issues Every Nurse Needs to Know About

While nursing is a rewarding career, providing care to others brings its own share of liability issues. From malpractice to inappropriate information disclosure, there are legal ramifications every nurse should consider. Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) programs often delve deeper into this topic, but ongoing, independent research is helpful, too. Below are some common legal issues nurses may face:

Malpractice

Performing a procedure outside your scope of practice or failing to closely follow a physician's patient-monitoring orders can be enough evidence for a patient to press charges. When nurses choose to not follow the standard of care, they are likely to make mistakes resulting in patient harm or injury.

A case of malpractice must satisfy these four conditions:

  1. Duty: There is an established relationship, such as the nurse-patient relationship.
  2. Breach of duty: The professional fails to provide a reasonable standard of care, according to professional practice guidelines or what another nursing professional would provide in a similar circumstance.
  3. Damages: The patient sustained injuries or harm.
  4. Causation: There is a proven link between the injuries or harm experienced by the patient and the nurse's action or inactions.

Negligence

Negligence is very similar to malpractice but is usually differentiated by intent. While malpractice is a result of a nurse deliberately choosing to stray from standard of care protocols or professional duties, negligence tends to arise from a mistake or carelessness that causes the patient unintended harm. Accidently administering the incorrect medication or forgetting to document nursing observations for one of your patients may be considered negligence.

Defamation

Defamation typically involves presenting false or accusatory statements as fact, which can harm someone's reputation or character. There are two forms of defamation: libel, which involves written statements, and slander, which is spoken. An example of libel is when a nurse posts disparaging comments about her supervisor on social media. Participating in gossip, where untrue claims about co-workers could circulate, is one example of slander.

Battery

Battery is the offensive or harmful touching of someone without their expressed or implied consent. Many nursing duties, such as administering medication or assisting a patient to the restroom, require close proximity to or physical contact with a patient. It is imperative to be well-versed on what constitutes battery and ensure you have obtained the necessary consent to discharge your duties, since patients have the right to refuse help and treatment.

Disclosure of Information

Nurses have direct and frequent access to patients' personal health information and a responsibility to protect it. Patients have a right to privacy and an expectation of confidentiality. Any unauthorized disclosure or sharing of identifying patient information is illegal, as outlined under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA). Nurses must refrain from openly discussing — verbally or in writing — patients' care with those who do not have a right of access to it. This includes maintaining confidentiality in the presence of other nursing colleagues and healthcare providers as well.

What Potential Legal Ramifications Do Nurses Face?

Nurses who are not aware of these legal issues can face significant fallout. While the repercussions vary widely based on the allegations, nurses may face the following:

  • Loss of trust by patients, colleagues and employers
  • Unpaid leave from work
  • Demotion
  • Job termination
  • Fines
  • Jail time
  • Loss of licensure

Due to nurses' intimate job responsibilities, there are legal regulations for them to consider. Nurses should stay informed on current medical care laws given the scope and gravity of potential legal issues that can arise. An RN to BSN program often includes coursework dedicated to these specific legal challenges, provides ways for nurses to appropriately report concerns and helps them protect their licensures and livelihoods.

Learn more about UTA's online RN to BSN program.


Sources:

Electronic Frontier Foundation: Online Defamation Law

National Center of Continuing Education, Inc.: Legal Issues in Nursing

RegisteredNursing.org: Legal Rights and Responsibilities, NCLEX-RN

U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: HIPAA for Professionals


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