On top of mastering the hundreds of nursing terms and abbreviations, it’s equally important to learn certain legal concepts as a new RN. I know what you’re thinking: “hey, I went to nursing school not law school.” However, you’d be surprised how many legal implications there are for nurses that affect everyday care. While you may be familiar with a few of them, here’s a crash course in the legal concepts nurses should know.
Confidentiality and HIPAA
Patient confidentiality is one of the most referenced legal concepts nurses should know. HIPAA, or the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, went into effect in 1996 in an effort to standardize electronic health transactions and give patients greater control over their health information (via Beyond the HIPAA Privacy Rule). Throughout the course of the nurse-patient relationship, nurses become privy to vast amounts of patients’ health data. As outlined in the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics for Nurses, all nurses are responsible for safeguarding this data and maintaining patient confidentiality. Sharing patient information with unauthorized individuals, whether via email, social media, or through casual conversation, violates HIPAA and can result in serious consequences for the liable party.
Negligence and Malpractice
As the name suggests, nursing negligence occurs when a patient experiences unintended harm due to a nurse’s mistake or omission in care (via NursingProcess.org). This can refer to: failing to properly monitor a patient and missing a change in their vital signs, incorrect administration of medication, or not noticing a drug reaction or allergy on a patient’s chart.
Malpractice and negligence are similar terms that are often used interchangeably but have one important difference. While negligence refers to an unintentional failure to provide care, malpractice is considered intentional. Nursing malpractice occurs when a nurse knowingly and willfully does not follow the proper standard of care and the patient experiences harm as a result. For example, administering the wrong medication or wrong amount of medication, not feeding a patient, not notifying the provider about crucial patient information, or charting false information about the patient’s status.
An RN can be held liable for negligence and malpractice when their actions result in serious outcomes like injury or death of a patient, which is why it is among the most important legal concepts nurses should know about before starting their careers.
Nurses have the status of mandated reporters, which means that when they witness abuse or neglect, they must report it through the appropriate channels. Vulnerable populations such as children, the elderly, and victims of abuse are often unable to independently seek help, and count on nurses for assistance. Whether a nurse notices signs of abuse in a patient, or a patient divulges that they have been abused, the nurse is required to report it to law enforcement. To read more about mandatory reporting and to see your state’s mandatory reporting laws, check out this resource via ChildWelfare.gov.
Although you may think of a fist fight or beating when you hear the word “battery,” its legal definition in relation to nursing is quite different. Battery is defined as “touching someone without their consent” according to RegisteredNursing.org. This is why nurses should always ask for consent before proceeding with any physical touching associated with patient care. Patients reserve the right to deny any physical interaction or treatment by a healthcare provider. Battery is one of the legal concepts nurses should know because if a clinician touches a patient without their proper consent, it can sometimes result in a battery allegation.
Invasion of Privacy
The legal definition of “Invasion of Privacy” is: the intrusion into the personal life of another, without just cause (via dictionary.law.com). Hospitals are busy places, and in the course of routine procedure, many patients have their privacy violated. Examples of invasions of privacy may include sharing the results of a test in front of family members or other patients without permission, leaving digital health records open for non-medical personnel to access, or gossiping about a patient’s health condition on social media. It is crucial to remember invasion of privacy when talking about work with your friends who are outside the medical profession because you never know when divulging patient information, even in the most casual of conversation, can result in a lawsuit.
Consequences of Breaking the Law in Nursing
These legal concepts nurses should know are invaluable because you can face serious consequences as a result of breaking the law on the job. While the implications vary widely based on the accusations, nurses may face the following:
- Loss of trust by patients, colleagues, and employers
- Unpaid leave from work
- Job termination
- Criminal charges
- Heavy fines or penalties
- Loss of any specialized board credentials and certifications
- Cancellation of licensure on a temporary or permanent basis
- Jail time
Going into your shift each day with a heightened awareness of the legal responsibilities of being a nurse is a great way to elevate your level of patient care and performance as an RN. These legal concepts are reminders of the ethical and moral weight being a nurse carries, and how much rides on following the law.