How Criminal Law Applies to Health Professionals

Criminal law is “society’s expression of the accepted limits of human and institutional behavior” (Pozgar, 2005, 206). Criminal law has a close relevance to clinical practice. For example, clinical professionals have many questions related to criminal law: what should a health professional do when a patient ask for assistance to die; whether it is legal to give large, potentially deadly quantities of morphine to a patient and so on. Health professionals should be able to distinguish behavior that lawfully assists patients and behavior considered to be illegal.  That is why it is essential to consider criminal law in relation to medicine.

Criminal law deals with different kinds of crimes. Professor Glanville Williams provides such a definition of a crime, “A crime (or offence) is a legal wrong that can be followed by criminal proceedings which may result in punishment” (Glanville, 1983, 27).  Crimes are generally classified as misdemeanors or felonies. The difference between these crimes revolves around the severity of the crime (Pozgar, 2005, 206). The objectives of criminal law are to protect an individual, maintain public safety, use punishment as a retribution for a crime, and prepare a criminal to return to society. It uses such criminal procedures and processes as an arrest, arraignment, conference, prosecutor, defense attorney and criminal trial to achieve the abovementioned goals (Pozgar, 2005, 207-209). Criminal law deals also with crime in a health profession such as health care fraud, theft, manslaughter, murder, euthanasia, child destruction and additional criminal offences as assault, assisted suicide, rape and so on (Simmers, 2009, 104; Forrester & Griffiths, 2005, 235-236).

Health care fraud involves an unlawful act, generally deception for personal gain. It includes the actions of making a patient pay for not rendered services or unnecessary services, accepting money for patient’s referrals, overbilling the benefit plan or the insurance carrier and so on. Health care fraud continues to be a major financial drain on the health care system (Pozgar, 2005, 210 - 212).

Theft is an action of appropriation of another person or organization’s property. Health care organizations must be alert to the potential ongoing threat of theft by unscrupulous employees, patients, visitors, physicians, and trespassers. The thefts of valuables, drugs, supplies and medical equipment cost health care organizations millions of dollars each year (Pozgar, 2005, 216).

Manslaughter is “the unlawful killing of another person without malice aforethought (Pozgar, 2005, 213).  Manslaughter is divided into two types voluntary manslaughter that is  killing which occurs when the accused intended to kill or cause serious harm and  involuntary manslaughter that is killing which occurs when the accused was killed as a result of an unlawful or dangerous act or reckless or grossly negligent (Forrester & Griffiths, 2005, 229). For example, in 2003 in the USA, a naturopath was found guilty of the manslaughter of an 18-day-old baby he was treating with herbal drops. He was sentenced to a 5-year jail term because the baby needed a surgery not treating with herbal drops.

Murder is the unlawful killing of a person. There are two kinds of murder. First-degree murder involves the deliberate and premeditated killing of another person with malice afterthought. Second–degree murder is neither deliberate nor premeditated killing with malice afterthought (Pozgar, 2005, 214). The tragedy of murder frequently occurs in institutions that are dedicated to the healing of the sick. For example, in the USA, Cullen, a former nurse pleaded guilty to 13 murders and attempting to kill two others in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The case raises concerns about hospital oversight of medical errors, narcotics security, and background checks on prospective employees (Pozgar, 2005, 215).

In medical practice, euthanasia is widespread. Literally, euthanasia means “good death” of a person who disconnected from a life-support machine or the death of a patient who refuses treatment and because of it dies. Although it is a very similar to suicide or murder, it is not a legally recognized word for the purposes of criminal law (Forrester & Griffiths, 2005, 231). Although there is no crime of euthanasia, the doctors and health professionals should remember that their objective is to save the life not to take it. Moreover, if euthanasia is performed without the willing of a patient, health workers can be jailed. For example, in May, 2004 in New Zealand, Lesley Martin, a euthanasia activist and registered nurse, was sentenced to 15 months of jail for the attempted murder of her mother. She did not want to see how her mother suffered and gave her morphine and after that smothered her with the help of a pillow. The nurse stated that it was the willing of her mother. However, she did not have the right to do it (Forrester & Griffiths, 2005, 232).

Child destruction and feticide is the crime, which is also related to medical practice. The offence involves the deliberate destruction of the fetus during the mid no latter part of the pregnancy when the fetus is assumed to be advanced in gestational age. The offence is meant to ensure that the person responsible for destroying a mature fetus does not escape liability for homicide (Forrester & Griffiths, 2005, 231).

To sum up, criminal law is closely related to clinical practice. There are many crimes which  frequently occur in institutions that are dedicated to the healing of the sick. They are divided into two groups special crimes, which can be committed only by medical workers that are euthanasia, child destruction, feticide and other common crimes such as fraud, theft, manslaughter, murder and so on.

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