Law and Ethics for Medical Careers

Audrey M. Jones
Medical professional legal and ethical standards

Ideas about law and ethics for medical careers differ based on the type of medical career and field of practice. In 1847 the American Medical Association (AMA) established a set of rules to guide physicians and other medical professionals in their practices. These rules were revised in 2001 to include the requirement that physicians promote the availability of medical care to all individuals.

Ethics for Medical Careers

Individual states establish medical qualifications and the laws governing practitioners. The majority of states accept the standards established by the AMA or the professional organizations established by practitioners in a particular field of medicine.

Who Is Covered?

Any professional working in a medical field must follow specific ethical requirements. Generally nurses, physicians, psychiatrists, pharmacists and other practitioners must abide by the rules requiring that the patient’s safety and physical and mental health be placed before other considerations. Dentists, chiropractors and physical therapists must also follow ethical rules, but their rules differ slightly to conform to the particulars of their fields.

The Hippocratic Oath

Historically, medical students recited the Hippocratic Oath when graduating. The original Oath, which is believed to have been penned by Hippocrates, includes promises to never harm a patient, cause or induce an abortion and to share all learned medical information. Revised over the centuries, it still requires doctors to care for patients to the best of their ability, but eliminates any mention of abortions and includes the additional promise that physicians will seek help from each other whenever needed. Medical school graduates are no longer required to take the Oath.

The AMA Code

The AMA Code of Medical Ethics consists of nine principles of behavior that the Association considers ethical. These tenants prescribe that medical professionals treat patients with compassion, report ill-behaving practitioners, respect the law and support public access to medical care.

The Code is divided into an introduction and nine chapters which govern separate aspects of working in a medical field. These chapters include physician-patient relationships, physician relationships with other medical professionals such as nurses and chiropractors, professional responsibilities and physician records. The Code also establishes patient responsibilities, such as providing a complete medical history, asking questions, following a treatment plan and paying for received medical care.

Other Ethical Guidelines

Professional organizations for other medical fields have also established independent codes of ethics. The American Nurses Association, American Chiropractic Association, American Dental Association and the American Physical Therapy Association have created ethical codes or lists of values to guide practitioners. These codes require their members to act with professionalism in the best interest of their patients.

Legal Considerations

Opinion 1.02 of the AMA Code discusses law and ethics for medical careers. It states that the behavior of medical professionals should exceed legal standards. Information about laws pertaining to medical careers may be found on the websites of the American Bar Association Health Law Section, Health Law Advocates, Brazelon Center for Mental Health Law and the American Health Lawyers Association.

Laws for Medical Careers

First and foremost, medical careers are subject to malpractice laws. These laws make a practitioner financially or criminally liable for mistreating or failing to treat a patient. Mistreatment includes failing to diagnose or properly treat a patient’s illness or injury, ignoring the patient’s wishes, performing unnecessary procedures or refusing to continue caring for a patient after beginning treatment. Violations of a state’s malpractice laws are usually prosecuted by the patient or, if they're criminal in nature, the state’s attorney general.

Federal Medical Laws

Although states establish medical ethics and legal requirements, the federal government maintains control over medical privacy laws. The Health Information Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) is a federal law requiring medical professionals and treatment facilities to keep a patient’s written and electronic medical records and any conversations regarding the patient’s health confidential. Even though this is a federal law, violations are prosecuted by a state’s attorney general.

Rules for Your Medical Career

The ethics and laws you must follow for your medical career depend on your field of practice and position. Physicians, including psychiatrists, have the most stringent rules, but nurses and other practitioners must follow many of the same rules to avoid losing their licenses. Check with your state or professional association to determine the specific laws and ethical guidelines that are applicable to you.

Law and Ethics for Medical Careers