When working in clinical care, advanced practice registered nurses (APRNs) follow codes of ethics, health and safety regulations, employer policies and legal standards to guide practice. When working as a clinical instructor, APRNs who are nurse educators are responsible for ensuring students follow the same legal and ethical guidelines.
Nurse educators have a legal obligation to ensure student nurses do not injure patients or themselves. As experts in healthcare, nurse educators must continually evaluate their students’ strengths and weaknesses. If the educators fail to recognize a student who is not meeting clinical requirements and the student causes harm, the educator may be subject to legal penalties. Educators may also be held liable if they are negligent in supervising student nurses or if they assign tasks above the students’ skill level.
When APRNs begin careers as nurse educators, they must be aware of personal legal vulnerabilities and protect themselves and the students they teach. While it is uncommon for nurse educators to face legal challenges, they should understand the potential hazards. APRNs studying nurse educator competencies should utilize curriculums that focus on legal issues in addition to other foundational coursework.
Legal Action and Nursing Education
Legal action in the United States takes two forms: criminal or civil.
Criminal law is intended to protect individuals through local, state and federal regulations. Criminal offenses can be misdemeanors (minor offenses) or felonies (major crimes). Nurses can violate criminal laws by practicing without a valid license, stealing medications and controlled substances, or falsifying medical records, among others.
Civil actions focus on disputes between individuals and private parties. One type of civil litigation is a tort case, which occurs when an individual suffers an injury or loss due to another person’s actions.
Nurse educators can be held accountable for a student nurse’s negligence or wrongful actions. For this type of tort action to be taken against a nurse educator, the offense must meet three requirements:
- The accused nursing student acted while under the supervision of a clinical nurse educator.
- The student and the nurse educator neglected to follow standards and procedures that other nurse educators would have followed if working under the same conditions.
- The harm caused to the patient was a direct result of the nurse educator’s negligence or failure to perform according to standards and procedures.
When nurse educators are found to be negligent in actions or duties, they are liable, or legally responsible, for the offense.
Nurse Educators Avoiding Liabilities
Nurse educators get into legal difficulties when students are given directions or instructions in a neglectful manner. Educators must supervise, guide practice and provide warnings to students regarding possible unsafe situations. To avoid any conflicts, nurse educators should remain vigilant by doing the following:
- Properly delegate duties to students
- Document student skills
- Require low-performing students to obtain more practice in specific areas
- Notify students of poor performance
- Protect student safety
- Facilitate student due process
The courts have mandated nurse educators teach nursing students proper hand washing techniques, the appropriate use of protective equipment and the correct handling procedures for used needles, among others. Nurse educators who have questions about their possible liabilities should contact an attorney.
Legal Safeguards for Nurse Educators
When teaching nursing students, nurse educators have a responsibility to ensure students are working in a safe manner. At the same time, nurse educators should safeguard their own legal vulnerabilities by remembering the following tips:
- Understand the Nurse Practice Act (NPA)
Each state has established an NPA as a means to guide nursing practice and protect patient rights. Since the individual state NPAs do not provide adequate guidance for nurses, each state has boards of nursing that develop rules and regulations to clarify laws regarding practice.
- Know the current standards of practice for specialty areas
Nursing has evolved to have many specialty areas of practice, so nurse educators are advised to be familiar with individual standards. For example, nurse educators working in critical care should consult the most recent American Association of Critical-Care Nurses (AACN) standards of practice and evidence-based guidelines to provide the most accurate educational experience regarding the specialty area.
- Ensure students are prepared before starting clinical work
In some states, nursing students are considered unlicensed providers so any task is considered a delegated task, which opens nurse educators to legal risks. When students are properly prepared for clinical work, nurse educators reduce their legal vulnerabilities.
- Protect against workplace injuries
Nursing students should be adequately trained and supervised to prevent workplace injuries such as sprains, needle sticks and disease exposure. Nurse educators may be held liable if students are not properly trained in workplace safety and are injured.
- Consider liability insurance
Many employers provide coverage for nursing instructors, but it may not be enough. Review the policy and coverage parameters to ensure it meets individual needs. If not, consider additional insurance.
- Contact an attorney
Nurse educators who have any questions about possible liabilities should contact an attorney who specializes in nursing.
Other Legal Issues in Nursing Education
In addition to possible liabilities as a result of teaching nursing students, nurse educators must be aware of other legal concerns that may arise:
- Breaching professional boundaries
Nursing educators work closely with students to encourage their success, but sometimes these close relationships may cross professional boundaries. Nurse educators should maintain working relationships with students.
- Revealing student information
Educators must respect a student’s legal rights to confidentiality as defined by the Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA) and the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).
Nurse educators are also expected to keep pace with ethical guidelines and standards for practice. While many ethics violations are not punishable by state or federal law, unethical methods may result in license suspension or revocation. APRNs who have a master’s degree in nursing and are considering a career as a nurse educator should understand the various legal and ethical issues in nursing education.
At Duquesne University, APRNs have the opportunity to earn an online Post-Master’s Certificate in Nurse Educator and Faculty Role to make positive changes in the nursing profession.
About Duquesne University’s Online Post-Master’s Certificate Program — Nurse Educator and Faculty Role
Duquesne University’s Post-Master’s Certificate in Nurse Educator and Faculty Role provides an opportunity for APRNs to begin careers as nurse educators, working in nursing schools, universities and colleges. The program allows APRNs to earn teaching experience while studying for the Certified Nurse Educator (CNE) exam.
Duquesne University offers several advanced nursing programs, including a post-master’s FNP online. For more information, contact Duquesne University today