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Medical law is a branch of law concerned with the legal rights and responsibilities of both patients and medical care providers. It may include a wide variety of topics, but is considered to have three primary branches: confidentiality, criminal law, and negligence. Laws made for these three branches provide a basis for both legal and disciplinary actions against medical professionals. They may also be used to affirm that a medical practitioner acted according to the law and in the manner expected of him.
The confidentiality part of medical law is concerned with patient records that detail information about a patient’s health and treatment. It deals with who has the right to access the records, including the patient himself. This branch of the law covers the extent to which patient records are kept confidential, when and how medical professionals should share information, and which sorts of situations constitute a breach of confidentiality.
The confidentiality branch of medical law also covers patient consent. Different jurisdictions have different laws regarding when and how a patient’s consent may be given and to whom a patient’s records may be released. In many places, a patient must give his consent for the sharing of his medical information no matter who requests it. Not even his lawyer, family members, or new doctor may access it without his consent.
The negligence portion of medical law focuses on a medical professional's duties to his patients. These duties usually include providing an acceptable standard of care and exercising good judgment. Medical law covers the manner in which cases of negligence may be handled. For example, if a surgeon operates on a patient and closes the patient’s incision, accidentally leaving a surgical instrument inside the patient, the surgeon may face a malpractice lawsuit. Medical negligence laws cover the consequences for medical practitioners and the rights of patients when a medical professional makes errors or fails to provide an acceptable level of care.
The criminal law portion of medical law is concerned with the actions of medical care professionals that may be considered criminal. For example, in most places, a doctor must obtain consent from his patient in order to treat him. Providing treatment against the patient’s will can be considered a crime in some places. It may be called assault and battery, for instance.
Sometimes, failure to obtain patient consent is considered criminal and other times a medical professional doesn’t have to obtain consent; medical law defines this distinction. For example, a case may arise in which a doctor cannot obtain consent because his patient is unconscious. If the doctor has to provide care in order to save his patient’s life, the law typically allows the doctor to provide the care that is in the patient’s best interest.