The term “scope of practice” defines permissible activities for the members of a healthcare profession. In many cases, the scope is determined by laws within a particular jurisdiction, professional standards boards, and the administrators of specific healthcare facilities. Members of a healthcare profession are typically trained to understand the limitations on their professional tasks and responsibilities and to seek assistance from others when appropriate. Healthcare workers who violate these laws risk not only losing their professional license, but may be subject to criminal prosecution and civil lawsuits.
In many areas, laws define the appropriate scope of practice for different healthcare professions. This is done to ensure that the public is receives medical services only from those who are actually qualified to offer them. These laws are often developed in consultation with professionals who can advise lawmakers as to the expected competencies of individuals in a specific occupation. Healthcare licensure laws typically charge professional licensing boards with monitoring licensees to ensure that none of them practice in ways they should not.
One common feature in a scope of practice is the issue of whether a licensed medical professional has the ability to prescribe medicine. In the United States, only certain healthcare professionals are able to prescribe drugs, and there may even be restrictions on the classes of drugs that a licensee can prescribe. For example, while a registered nurse may be able to dispense medication to a patient under a doctor's orders, he typically is not permitted to prescribe medication unless he has received additional licensing as a nurse practitioner. The scope for the same healthcare profession may vary from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. In some areas of the United States, licensed practical nurses may not be permitted to start IVs, while other places may permit this activity.
The scope of practice as permitted by law may be even more limited in certain healthcare institutions. A hospital may have a policy of restricting the activities of non-physicians as a cautionary measure, even though the law in that jurisdiction permits other licensed healthcare workers to perform the procedure or activity. In such cases, a worker must be careful to understand institutional policy and to not unwittingly engage in a practice that he may have previously had permission to do but is now forbidden by his current employer.