Legal Issues All Nurses Need to Be Aware Of

Healthcare is fraught with legal pitfalls that can have significant ramifications for uninformed nurses. An accredited online Registered Nurse to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (RN to BSN) program typically includes coursework about the ethical-legal issues that arise in nursing. Given that professional demands on nurses include a legal and moral duty to protect patient privacy and the obligation of mandatory reporting, it is important for them to understand the ins and outs of healthcare law. Doing so allows nurses to practice with confidence, avoid unintentional harm and protect their livelihoods.

What Prominent Legal Issues Do Nurses Face?

Nurses encounter a variety of ethically challenging situations, many of which require split-second judgment calls. If a nurse makes an inappropriate decision or the outcome is otherwise poor, it can negatively impact the patient, prompting complaints, formal disciplinary action and legal trouble for nurses. The National Practitioner Data Bank (NPDB) reported 80,588 adverse action reports filed against registered nurses since 2015.

Some of the most prominent legal issues nurses may encounter include:

Confidentiality and HIPAA. Known as the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, HIPAA went into effect in 1996 in an effort to standardize electronic health transactions and give patients greater control over their identifiable health information. Through the course of the nurse-patient relationship, nurses are privy to vast amounts of patients’ personal health data. As outlined in the American Nurses Association Code of Ethics for Nurses, safeguarding this data and maintaining patient privacy and confidentiality falls to nurses. Sharing patient information with unauthorized individuals, whether via email, social media or through casual conversation, violates the nondisclosure agreement.

Malpractice. It is common to assume that malpractice claims against healthcare workers only affect physicians and their employers. However, nurses can be held liable also, even when their actions and the consequences are the result of an honest mistake. For example, administering the wrong medication or forgetting to notate a patient’s critical status change can generate allegations of malpractice. Since 2015, 1,665 medical malpractice payments were issued on behalf of RNs, per NPDB data, with over half of those claims valued at $100K or more.

Mandatory reporting. Nurses have frequent interactions with the public and unique opportunities to observe their health and well-being, which gives them the status of mandated reporters. When they witness abuse or neglect, they must report it through the appropriate channels. Vulnerable populations, such as children, the elderly and victims of domestic abuse are often unable to independently seek help and count on nurses and other mandatory reporters for assistance. Nurses are expected to understand and comply with their state’s specific mandatory reporting laws.

What Are the Consequences When Nurses Break the Law?

Consequences for breaking healthcare laws vary widely and are typically based on the state’s expectations of nurses and the scope of the transgression. In addition, whether the act was intentional is a factor, too. It is important to note that nurses may be considered liable even in situations where the damage inflicted was unintentional, so developing an understanding of all applicable laws is imperative.

Possible consequences for nurses who are involved in illegal activities include:

  • Revocation of one’s nursing license, either on a temporary or permanent basis
  • Loss of any specialized board credentials and certifications
  • Criminal charges, jail time and financial penalties
  • Disciplinary actions levied by one’s employer, such as demotion, unpaid leave of absence and termination

Given the overall litigious nature of American society and the extent to which it infiltrates the healthcare system, nurses must learn the intricacies of the laws governing their profession. By understanding the ethical-legal issues of nursing, they can protect themselves as well as their patients and employers from potentially severe consequences.

Learn more about UofSC Aiken’s online RN to BSN program.


American Nurses Association: Code of Ethics for Nurses with Interpretive Statements

Children’s Bureau, Child Welfare Information Gateway: Mandatory Reporters of Child Abuse and Neglect – State Statutes

HIPAA Journal: What Happens if a Nurse Violates HIPAA?

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

National Practitioner Data Bank, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: Data Analysis Tool

Office for Civil Rights, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services: HIPAA for Professionals

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