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Nursing Legal Issues: How to Protect Yourself

With any professional license comes ethical and legal responsibility. Doctors take the Hippocratic Oath pledging to do no harm to patients; lawyers are held responsible for their clients in court; and architects are responsible for the safety of the structures they build. Nurses are no different. Whether it's administering a medication incorrectly or failing to obtain an informed consent from a pre-op patient, nurses may be held legally responsible if they fail to meet certain standards.

Five Legal Issues in Nursing: What Every Nurse Should Know

All nurses should be familiar with nursing law and ethics and understand how nursing legal issues can affect them. Know your basic nursing laws and avoid lawsuits and liability:

1. Signatures Are Golden

When a physician or other health care provider orders a procedure be done to a patient, it is the nurse's responsibility to obtain an informed consent signature. This means that the patient:

  • Understands the procedure and the alternative options
  • Has had a chance to ask the provider any questions about the procedure
  • Understands the risks and benefits of the procedure
  • Chooses to sign or not sign to have the procedure performed.

If the nurse does not obtain signatures, both the nurse and the operating provider can be held liable for damages incurred.

2. Document, Document, Document

It is the nurse's responsibility to make sure everything that is done in regards to a patient's care (vital signs, specimen collections, noting what the patient is seen doing in the room, medication administration, etc.), is documented in the chart. If it is not documented with the proper time and what was done, the nurse can be held liable for negative outcomes. A note of caution: if there was an error made on the chart, cross it out with one line (so it is still legible) and note the correction and the cause of the error.

3. Report It or Tort It

Allegations of abuse are serious matters. It is the duty of the nurse to report to the proper authority when any allegations are made in regards to abuse (emotional, sexual, physical, and mental) towards a vulnerable population (children, elderly, or domestic). If no report is made, the nurse is liable for negligence or wrongdoing towards the victimized patient.

4. Rights to Privacy

The nurse is responsible for keeping all patient records and personal information private and only accessible to the immediate care providers, according to the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996 (HIPAA). If records get out or a patient's privacy is breached, the liability usually lies on the nurse because the nurse has immediate access to the chart.

5. You're Dosing WHAT?!

Medication errors account for 7,000 deaths and 770,000 patients injured each year in the US. It is the nurse's responsibility to follow the five "rights" of medication administration: right dose, right drug, right route, right time, and right patient. If a nurse pays attention to those details, the likelihood of a medication error is greatly reduced, thereby saving the nurse and health care institution from liability for damages.

While these are some of the main issues nurses might face legally, you should visit your state nursing board's Website for more information. Another good source for nursing legal issues is the American Nurses Association Website. It has a Code of Ethics guide that may be purchased online.

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