3 Things Nurse Practitioners Need to Know Before Volunteering

For nurse practitioners, volunteering is a great way to give back to those in need and can be a rewarding and fulfilling experience. But with an estimated 15,000 to 19,000 malpractice suits brought against providers each year, willingness to volunteer can understandably be deterred by the potential for being held liable in the event that a patient is harmed. So, how can you lower your liability risk to protect yourself while giving back?

Regardless of if you choose to volunteer at a free clinic for the homeless or the otherwise underserved, in a disaster relief situation, or even at a local sporting event, the setting typically occurs in an informal medical environment with limited supplies and diagnostic capability. Additionally, you more than likely will know next to nothing about your patient or their medical history; leaving you more vulnerable to the possibility of making a medical error. Whether or not you’ll be held liable depends greatly upon many factors. However it’s important not to let fear deter you from helping those in need. Here are three things you need to know before volunteering as a nurse practitioner.

1. Understand state and federal laws and how they protect you

In the United States, volunteer healthcare providers are protected by multiple forms of legislation at both the state and federal level. Before volunteering, familiarize yourself with the specific laws as they pertain to the type of volunteerism you’re looking into, as well as the specific volunteer laws within the state you’ll be providing services in. Most states have their own forms of limited liability or immunity for providers and the types of malpractice protections and applicable circumstances vary by individual state.

Good Samaritan doctrines also exist in all states as a common law and provide a very specific shield that focuses on protecting medical providers who aid in situations involving medical emergencies. However once emergency medical assistance passes the immediate emergency stage or the scene of assistance moves outside an emergency location, providers may not be covered by the doctrine in the event of a medical error made thereafter. For example, during a public health emergency such as a natural disaster, where volunteers may be needed not only at the immediate scene of an emergency but also in the aftermath, the Good Samaritan statute may not be comprehensive enough for immunity. However most insurance policies cover medical malpractice liability in Good Samaritan situations.

The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 is a Federal legislation that provides protection to volunteers who are acting on behalf of a non profit organization or governmental entity in the US. The VPA provides immunity for harm caused by an act or omission of the volunteer on behalf of the organization or entity so long as the volunteer adhered to certain requirements; such as acting within the scope of your practice and being properly licensed, certified or authorized by the appropriate authorities in the State in which you are volunteering in.

The Free Clinic Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) Medical Malpractice program is another source of Federal protection in which providers are regarded as public health service employees. As such the act provides NPs with immunity from medical malpractice lawsuits resulting from related medical and surgical functions performed at a free clinic that are within the scope of your practice. However, to qualify for the protection, the health care clinic must meet certain requirements itself.

2. Know your malpractice insurance coverage

Federal and state immunity laws typically only apply to simple negligence. Additionally, some volunteer activities fall outside of Federal or state immunities, so after you have familiarized yourself with the applicable laws, it’s important to determine if additional coverage from a malpractice insurance carrier is necessary. And don’t just assume that your insurance through your workplace will cover volunteer activities. While some insurance policies do afford you the opportunity to volunteer, there are some that do not.  Additional arrangements may need to be made in order for coverage to be in place or you may need to obtain your own insurance policy outside of your workplace in order to cover your volunteer activities.

3. Does the organization you’re volunteering with provide coverage?

In some cases, US organizations do provide liability coverage for their volunteers. Check with the organization you’re volunteering with to see what coverage they may provide. They may also be able to further inform you of what federal and state laws are applicable to they type of volunteering you’ll be doing, as well as advise you as to which laws they are operating under the pretense of.

Where do you plan to volunteer as a nurse practitioner?


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