Law and Ethics Study Guide for the Medical Assistant test

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General Information

As a medical assistant, following the law and general ethical codes is important. To follow the rules, you have to know them. Reviewing the following terms, and seeking more information on ones with which you are not familiar, will help you pass the medical assistant test and become a responsible medical assistant.

You don’t need a law degree to become a medical assistant, but you do need to have a basic understanding of some legal terms. Here are a few with which you should be familiar.

There are certain categories of law that typically affect a medical practice. Here are some of them and to what part of medicine they may apply.

Criminal Law

Criminal law concerns acts that are committed against the public (felony or misdemeanor). For example, a healthcare provider may be prosecuted for assault and battery against a patient.

Civil Law

There are two types of civil law: torts (unintentional or intentional) and breach of contract (between patient and physician). An example of a tort is abandonment.

Statutory Law

Statutes of limitations are in place for medical malpractice lawsuits. These limit the amount of time a person has to file a lawsuit. If a medical malpractice claim is not filed within the time frame, the court will throw it out.

Common Law

This type of law is based on tradition or previous court decisions, rather than written legislation.

Useful Terminology

Subpoena duces tecum: written order for a person to attend court and bring required documents

Subpoena: order for a person to attend court

Respondeat Superior: means “let the master answer”

Res ipsa loquitur: means “the occurrence of an accident implies negligence”

Locum tenens: “to hold the place of or “to substitute for” (used for fill-in physicians)

Defendant-plaintiff: The plaintiff is a person who is filing a suit. The defendant is one that a suit is filed against.

Deposition: process of giving sworn evidence

Arbitration-mediation: Arbitration is conducted using third-party medical arbitrators—usually more than one—who make decisions and give opinions, in place of a judge. Mediation uses one arbitrator who, rather than making decisions, helps to facilitate discussion.

Medical Law

A law is broken in healthcare by healthcare personnel. Examples within medical law are criminal law, civil law, common law, and statutory law.

Even though you will not be in charge of office operations as a medical assistant, you will be held accountable for following legal and ethical guidelines that apply to your position. Here are some things to consider.

Scope of Medical Assistant Practice

As a medical assistant working in healthcare, it is important to have some knowledge of medical law and court proceedings. Scope of practice, as well as laws pertaining to medical practice, vary from state to state.

Consequences of Failure to Operate Within the Scope

Failure to work within your scope of practice can result in fines, jail time, and loss of licensure or certification. Punishment varies according to state and workplace and depends on the act committed.

Decision Factors

When determining an appropriate punishment for medical malpractice, there are legal and moral considerations. In the case of common law, punishment may be based more on the morality of the offense than the illegality.

Responding to Unethical Practices

As a medical assistant, you are responsible for responding in an ethically appropriate manner to situations. It is your responsibility to know the legal parameters in medicine and to report any violations to the proper supervisor or authority.

Importance of Professional Development

You are encouraged and often required, to continue to develop professionally. This can be accomplished by continuing your education or participating in your facility’s education classes or programs.

Professional Concerns

As a healthcare provider, you must remain professional at all times. This includes making the right moral and ethical decisions.

Hippocratic Oath

This is an oath taken by most physicians before starting a medical practice, during which they swear to uphold ethical standards.

Ethic Principles of American Medical Association (AMA)

These can be found at and are used to help healthcare providers deal with ethical concerns and situations.

Professional Liability

Maintaining professional liability protection, while in practice, is essential. Malpractice coverage, if not provided by your employer, should be considered. Also, standards of conduct should be reviewed. Your workplace may provide you with the standard of care that is expected.

Licensure, Certification, and Registration

Different providers are required to have different credentials, according to the state where they practice. For example, nurses are required to be licensed, but must also be registered in their state. Be able to identify other credential requirements for various medical professionals.


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