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Prescription for Nurses - Know Your Rights

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In caring for patients, nurses serve an essential role in our health care system. But nurses in New Jersey need to be aware of their legal rights and responsibilities, whether working in a hospital or a doctor's office. All nurses know about the various administrative requirements required to practice, like renewing their registration every two years and completing 30 hours of continuing education.


At work, nurses, like doctors, can be sued for medical negligence if she or he "deviates from the standard of care" and causes injury to a patient. Nurses who commit medical malpractice should be covered by the insurance policies in place for the facility or doctor who employs them. According to Monique Ellington, a Registered Nurse in New Jersey for 9 years:


It is always wise for individual Nurses to have a separate Professional Liability Insurance for themselves in addition to the facility or doctor's office. It is not always best to rely on the facility for protection in a suit because they will always act in what is their best interest, which in most cases may not include you.


Nurses can also run into legal and ethical issues if they refuse to treat a patient. Generally, that can be cause for termination. In one case, an appeals court decided that a hospital could fire a nurse who refused, on moral grounds, to dialyze a patient suffering from kidney failure. The judges said that unless the nurse cited a specific law or "clear mandate of public policy" to support her refusal to treat the patient, the hospital could fire her as an "at-will" employee.


There are two major exceptions to this. One, under New Jersey law, nurses can refuse to participate in withholding of life support, if there is a "sincerely held personal or professional conviction." A nurse who wants to do this must inform patients and their employer as soon as possible, to make sure that the patient is still properly cared for according to his or her wishes. Two, nurses can refuse to participate in abortion or sterilization procedures based on religious or moral objections. But to do so and avoid being fired, they must request and accept the employer's offer of "reasonable accommodations." The civil rights laws require employers to make good faith attempts to accommodate employees', including nurses', religious beliefs, unless doing so would cause an "undue hardship."


An accommodation does not need to be the "most" reasonable one, or the one that least burdens a nurse or is preferred by her or him. In a case against the University of Medicine and Dentistry, the federal court of appeals decided that a transfer to a different unit, where the nurse would not have to compromise her morals, was acceptable. If the nurse objected to the transfer, she could be disciplined


All nurses are protected by laws against discrimination, sexual harassment, unfair pay and poor working conditions. They are also protected by the New Jersey Conscientious Employee Protection Act (CEPA), which protects against retaliation for "blowing the whistle on illegal or improper actions, including medical negligence. To succeed on a whistleblowing claim and be protected, a nurse must claim a violation of a specific law or professional code of ethics or conduct that was violated. Finally, most hospitals and many doctor's offices have employee handbooks that describe prohibited conduct in the workplace and what to do about it.


Nurses have a variety of legal rights and potential liabilities in their employments. It's important for them to know their rights, to identify if they've been wronged in some way by an employer or a coworker, or if they have any legal exposure for their own conduct. . Likewise, nurses must also be cognizant of the fact that their work may give rise to legal liability, in the form of a medical malpractice suit, when their care falls below an acceptable standard. With the collaboration of Connor Turpan, Rutgers School of Law Newark candidate for a JD degree in May 2016 and Associate Editor on the Rutgers Computer and Technology Law Journal. 

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