Explain how tort law, criminal law, and contract law directly impact health care professionals.


The healthcare industry is inseparable from the justice system, both civil and criminal. Doctors and nurses are humans and, as such, are fallible. They make mistakes. Those mistakes might involve a failure to accurately diagnose a patient’s condition, a surgical error that kills or incapacitates the patient, or the deliberate or inadvertent disclosure of patient-sensitive information, this latter of which would be a potential violation of federal laws intended to protect patient privacy (e.g., the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996, which is the nation’s principal statute pertaining to requirements in healthcare settings for ensuring the privacy of patients’ personal information).

Tort law involves civil cases, such as negligence on the part of a physician that harms a patient, that may not transgress criminal statutes, but which could leave the physician and the institution (such as a hospital) for which he or she works liable for damages. Healthcare settings are extremely susceptible to civil cases because of their enormously important but highly-subjective responsibilities. Beyond the basic framework of medical ethics, such as the commitment to “first do no harm,” ethical dilemmas are almost a daily component of hospital operations. There is a good reason hospitals maintain lawyers on their payroll: the line between appropriate and inappropriate conduct can be perilously slim, and legal counsel is often required to parse these distinctions. In addition, as noted, humans, including physicians, are inherently fallible and the consequences of a medical error are obviously more potentially catastrophic than in most other professions. The vulnerability of physicians and hospitals to civil suits, therefore, requires constant attention to the realm of tort law.

Criminal law is an important component of the healthcare industry. For starters, the healthcare industry is regulated by federal and state statutes the violation of which can result in criminal prosecution and be punishable by being sentenced to terms in prison. Fraudulent activities pertaining to billing practices, for instances, can be prosecuted in criminal court and medical malpractice can similarly result in referral to the criminal justice system. A great deal of violence occurs regularly in many hospitals, especially in emergency rooms, involving mentally ill or drug and/or alcohol-impaired patients. It is common for local law enforcement agencies to be summoned to hospitals to deal with disruptive or violent behavior on the part of patients, visitors, and transients.

Finally, contract law is an integral part of hospital operations. Before a patient is seen by a medical professional (with the exception of some emergency room visits), he or she is asked to sign a form providing the patient’s consent to be treated and the patient’s insurance company to be billed by the medical office. That is a form of contract. Contract law is also involved in relationships between facilities and practitioners, and between facilities and vendors that sell to hospitals and other healthcare clinics the supplies essential for the proper treatment of most patients.

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