Health care professionals constantly navigate their way through a maze of ethical and legal rules and regulations that govern the profession. This profession is one with some of the most legal scrutiny and the strongest ethical guidelines. Health care requires this type of oversight, not only because the very lives of people are at stake, but also because of the vulnerability of many of the people being cared for within the industry.
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The legal issue that health care professionals have to concern themselves with most is malpractice. This is why all health care offices and professionals carry some type of malpractice insurance. Everyone makes mistakes. However, when a doctor, health care professional, hospital or other organisation devoted to patient care makes a mistake, it potentially impacts the health, safety or finances of a patient. When this happens, liability exists which can result in a lawsuit being filed against the health care professional.
Hospitals and professionals across the health care industry are required by law to protect the privacy of their patients. Patients need to provide a great deal of information in order to get health care, and much private information about a patient is gathered within a clinic or hospital, such as test results or treatment plans. HIPAA, the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act, is a federal regulation that requires health care professionals to take all reasonable measures to make sure that patient information is only viewed by those with proper authority and access.
This is an ethical concern that has legal implications. Confidentiality is linked to patient privacy, but has to do more with the conduct of the health care professional than with documentation. Both ethically and legally, health care professionals are prohibited from sharing information about patients with other people. Patients expect that they can speak to health care professionals in confidence, and both legal and ethical guidelines exist to preserve that confidentiality.
Every part of the ethical system taught in health care education can be traced to the oath that doctors take when entering the profession. The Hippocratic oath includes issues of patient privacy, but ultimately requires that doctors do everything possible to avoid causing harm and to preserve the health of their patients in all ways possible. The system of ethics surrounding health care is based entirely on the notion of preserving patient health. For instance, it is considered unethical for physicians to provide care to family members. This is because a physician could have difficulty being objective when providing care to a relative, which could ultimately jeopardise that patient's safety.
Medical ethics is such a complex issue that there are scholars who specialise in nothing besides the study of health care ethics. Ethics in this field not only applies to the practice of health care, but also to its further development through research and in the development of new fields of study. In addition, most health care professionals have specific ethical guidelines set down by their governing organisations which they are both expected and required to follow. Most medical specialities also have their own detailed ethical codes that govern practitioners.
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- U.S. Department of Health & Human Services: Health Information Privacy - For Consumers
- Priory.com; "Medical Ethics"; Dr. Ben Green; July 2001
- NOVA; "The Hippocratic Oath Today"; Peter Tyson; March 27, 2001
- American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists: Code of Professional Ethics
- American Chiropractic Association: Code of Ethics