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Nurses and Health Law: The Benefits of a Law Degree

August 7, 2017 | Scott F. Johnson

Nurses are in high demand these days. They fulfill a number of important tasks in providing care to patients and in managing various health care operations. Nurses who earn a law degree enhance their skill set in ways that can open up a number of exciting and challenging career options. Below are just a few of them.

Malpractice and Disciplinary Matters as a Consultant or Expert Witness

Someone with both nursing and legal training can work either defending or pursuing malpractice or disciplinary claims against nurses or other health care professionals. These areas involve a combination of medical standards of care and legal standards of care. Attorneys are often involved in these matters; they understand the legal standard of care, but need assistance understanding the medical standard of care and how it connects to the legal standard of care. Nurses with law degrees have an advantage by being knowledgeable about both sides of the analysis, and that can be a real benefit.

Opportunities here include consulting or working with health care providers and institutions to help ensure compliance with medical and legal standards of care; working with governmental agencies and state and local licensing boards to develop and enforce standards; and working with law firms and attorneys who represent parties involved in these matters. Nurses who obtain Juris Doctor (JD) degrees can practice law and become the attorneys involved in these cases, or they can consult with other attorneys who are involved in them. Nurses with non-licensure Executive Juris Doctor (EJD) degrees can consult in this area without representing clients.

A related option would be to serve as an expert witness in malpractice and professional discipline matters for nurses. Expert witnesses play an important role in such cases by helping judges, juries, and administrative agency decision makers understand the medical standard of care, and whether it was met in a particular case. That, in turn, helps determine if the legal standards were met. Given the complicated nature of health care disputes, experts are often required in malpractice cases, and can be very helpful in discipline matters as well. Nurses with either a JD or an EJD degree can have an advantage here as they will understand both the legal and medical requirements.

Compliance and Risk Management

A JD or an EJD degree can also be very beneficial in non-litigation settings. One example is working in compliance. There are a myriad of governmental laws and regulations that apply to health care providers, and compliance is an ongoing effort. Here too, nurses with a law degree may have an advantage, as they will have an understanding of the medical and legal side of the equation, and that can help in advising providers on how to meet legal requirements. A related area would be risk management for a health care institution. Here, the role includes developing and implementing strategies to improve the quality of care provided to patients, and to reduce the risk of claims against the institution and its providers.

Disability Rights and Benefits

Another possibility is working with people with disabilities to obtain benefits and services. Examples include helping people obtain social security disability benefits, or long term disability benefits, working with students with disabilities to help them obtain services from public schools, and helping employees receive reasonable accommodations from employers. Knowledge of the medical information is very valuable here, and both JD and EJD degrees are options here, because even those with EJD degrees are often able to assist applicants in administrative proceedings that take place to resolve disputes in these areas.

Management Opportunities

A law degree can be helpful to nurses who wish to continue in their existing field, but want to enhance their abilities or advance to more senior positions. The degree can help in day-to-day understanding of the laws and policies that impact the delivery of services provided to patients. It can also be helpful to understanding laws related to nursing employment, and so can assist in obtaining positions in management.

Exploring New Careers

Purdue Global Law School alumni have experience in many of these areas. Purdue Global Law School has a number of graduates with nursing degrees who have taken advantage of the types of opportunities discussed here. In addition, some students with medical backgrounds come to law school believing that they will use their degree in the health care field in some way, but then once enrolled discover that they are interested in other areas, such as intellectual property, business, or criminal law.

About The Author

Scott F. Johnson

Scott F. Johnson is a Professor of Law at Purdue Global Law School (formerly Concord Law School), where he teaches Education Law and Special Education Law, among other topics. He has written a number of books and articles in the education law area. Professor Johnson’s law practice included education and special education cases, and he currently serves as a special education hearing officer for a state agency.

The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not represent the view of Purdue Global Law School.