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Law and Medicine: Relationship Analysis


Medicine like most other professionals is governed by laws that are meant to protect patients’ rights and prevent fraudulent practice. Healthcare practitioners are for example required to complete required training and obtain a practice license from a registered governing body. In the course of practice, nurses and physicians have a professional duty of care that requires them to use their expertise to help patients in whatever way they can (Froomkin et al., 2019). A failure to do so can result in either civil or criminal liability depending on the harm suffered by the patient. Key questions relating to the relationship between medicine and the law include the following:

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  • To what extent should healthcare professionals strive to abide by the law when caring for patients?
  • Can the law be breached if that helps the patients receive the care they prefer?
  • How should legal questions be resolved in the clinical environment?

Key Areas of Law Applicable to Medicine

Civil Law

Healthcare practice is largely governed by civil law, which accounts for the majority of violations by providers. Healthcare practitioners such as physicians and nurses have a professional duty of care to cater to the interests of their patients to their best ability. A civil violation includes any negligence on the part of providers that leads to a failure to carry out their required duties or provide them in ways that are harmful to the patient. Patients who suffer harm as a result can sue for damages suffered under civil law. According to Herring et al. (2017), healthcare professionals have a legal duty to live up to the expectations of patients who regard them as being knowledgeable in matters of medicine and healthcare. Patients, therefore, have the right to seek damage under civil law if errors are made that harm them in one way or another. If a nurse for example administers the wrong treatments unknowingly, she has breached her legal duty of care and the patient has the right to sue for damages if they suffered harm due to that incident. Civil law mainly relates to cases of medical malpractice that involve unintentional mistakes by healthcare practitioners that injure patients directly or indirectly. Breaching confidentiality can for example entitle a patient to compensation for damages under civil law. Other areas of the law can also be used to prosecute nurses and physicians in case they intentionally cause harm to patients.

Criminal Law

Healthcare professionals can also face criminal liability if their actions are believed to have been intentionally meant to cause harm to other or to illegally profit in the course of practice. Medical fraud can for example lead to criminal prosecution if practitioners bill clients for services they did not provide or receive payments from pharmaceutical companies to prescribe their drugs. Certain violations in healthcare practice are therefore classified as criminal acts if they were meant to create illegal profits or defraud other parties (Burke, 2021). The failure to have a practice license or to register a facility can also lead to criminal prosecution. Certain forms of negligence are, therefore, considered to be criminal and can attract both civil and as well as criminal liability.

Administrative Law

Administrative law governs how key institutions of the government function. Public healthcare agencies, therefore, use administrative law to control medical practice and implement programs that are meant to make it easier for the public to access healthcare. Providers must implement recommendations of public health agencies to ensure the service they provide meets the required standards (Burke, 2021). Penalties may be applied under administrative law to providers who fail to maintain their facilities in suitable conditions or negligently hire unlicensed employees that can harm patients.

Duty of Healthcare Professionals to Observe the Law

Nurses and physicians are required to abide by both federal and state laws that regulate their practice. Irrespective of what the patient’s wishes are, a nurse should prioritize the law and act in the best interests of the patients as required by professional guides to practice (Mroczek, 2017). When caring for a patient, a nurse for example should not administer medication that has not been recommended as a way of helping the patient cope with any pain or discomfort they may be feeling. In conjunction with other professionals, nurses should also educate patients about the law in case any question comes up that involves ethics or the law (Doherty, n.d.). Due to the urgency that characterizes most medical decisions, it may be impossible to resolve any legal questions that come up in the course of practice through the courts or justice system. Nurses and physicians should, therefore, rely on professional guides to practice as well as ethical codes of conduct that require them to act in the best interests of the patient.


Healthcare professionals are required to abide by all laws that regulate the practice of medicine. In case any legal questions arise in the clinical environment, doctors and nurses should observe the law and limit their actions to what is legally allowed. The failure to act in the best interests of the patient can result in both civil as well as criminal liability for practitioners, depending on the nature of the harm suffered by patients. Providers can also be prosecuted if they fail to observe administrative laws governing their practice.


Burke, A. (2021). Legal rights and responsibilities. Registered Nurse. Web.

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Doherty, R.P. R. (n.d.). Ethical dimensions in the health professions. VitalSource Bookshelf. Web.

Froomkin, A., Kerr, I., & Pineau, J. (2019). When AIs outperform doctors: Confronting the challenges of a tort-induced over-reliance on machine learning. Arizona Law Review, 33, 34-99.

Herring, J., Fulford, K., Dunn, M., & Handa, A. (2017). Elbow room for best practice? Montgomery, patients’ values, and balanced decision-making in person-centred clinical care. Medical Law Review, 25(4), 582–603.

Mroczek, J. M. (2017). Legal issues in nursing. National Center of Continuing Education. Web.

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