Health care professionals practice in an environment that is complex, with many regulations, laws and standards of practice. Performing an abortion is legal but may not be considered ethical by other health care professionals or members of the public at large. Other ethical dilemmas arise at the end of life, when a decision must be made to turn off life-support machines and allow death to occur. Other common ethical issues a health care professional might face are confidentiality, relationships with patients and matters related to consent, especially in the treatment of minors.
Confidentiality is both an ethical and a legal issue. Keeping information about a patient confidential is a way of showing respect for the person’s autonomy; releasing information can damage the patient. There are also specific laws regarding the release of information under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, or HIPAA. The laws define exactly what information can be released and to whom. Insurance companies, for example, may not have the right to certain aspects of a patient’s medical record. However, if there is risk to a third party, an ethical health care professional may need to break confidentiality to prevent harm.
Relationships with patients, particularly sexual relationships, are forbidden by both the medical and nursing code of ethics. Such actions are considered serious misconduct and can result in expulsion from the profession and losing the license to practice. A sexual relationship is considered to be an abuse of power on the part of the physician or nurse, as patients are dependent and vulnerable. A sexual relationship with a patient can be very harmful, and an ethical practitioner will avoid even the appearance of sexual interest in a patient.
Health care practitioners of all sorts face the risk of being sued for malpractice. A lawsuit may be brought from an injury related to surgery, defective equipment or medical products, care that was omitted or a deliberate act that caused harm to a patient. The risk of litigation is such that many health care professionals practice what is called defensive medicine — for example, ordering a test or performing a procedure primarily to ensure that the patient cannot allege negligence.
Patients must provide informed consent for treatment to be legal. A surgery performed without proper consent is generally considered assault, according to a 2009 article in the "Internet Journal of Surgery." When treating an adolescent, the health care professional faces potential conflict between ethics and the law in certain situations. The professional might believe that parents should be kept informed of their child’s health issues. In California, however, a 12-year-old can consent to medical care and counseling related to the treatment of a drug or alcohol problem, the National Center for Youth Law reports. The treating doctor cannot disclose information to the parents without the child’s consent except in very specific circumstances, such as risk to another person.
- Priory.com: Medical Ethics
- The American Academy of Orthotists & Prosthetists: Overview of Legal and Ethical Issues Related to Health-Care Malpractice for Prosthetists and Orthotists
- The Mount Sinai Journal of Medicine: Legal and Ethical Issues Facing Adolescent Health Care Professionals
- American Nurses Association: Short Definitions of Ethical Principles and Theories
- The Internet Journal of Surgery: Consent in Surgical Practice – A Brief Review
- National Center for Youth Law: California Minor Consent Laws – Mental Health
If you ever find yourself in need of any legal help related to nursing, please contact Illinois Nurse Defense Attorney James B. Goldberg at (312) 735-1185 or visit his website goldberglicensing.com