How to protect your nursing license during COVID

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Advice from a registered nurse-turned-attorney

Any statements from Hahnah Williams, Esq/RN contained in this piece are for informational and educational purposes only and should not be construed as specific legal or other advice. Individuals who need legal advice should contact a nurse attorney or attorney in their state. Hahnah Williams practices law in Georgia at Hahnah Williams, Attorney at Law, P.C., www.hahnahwilliams.com

As a Georgia attorney, Hahnah Williams represents health care professionals in all aspects of professional license matters, including licensing board investigations and complaints that might involve professional misconduct, drug diversion or abuse or substandard patient care.

A licensed registered nurse with years of experience in ICU and as a travel nurse, Williams feels a special connection to her nurse clients. "I've been in those shoes," she says. "I've been many miles in those shoes."

When nurses call Williams to say they've been reported to the board, her experience in the field directs her response. "I don't ask what the charges are: The first thing I say is, 'What happened?'" Williams says. "I am able to literally visualize it while they tell me. I know how these things go down."

After almost a decade practicing at a large firm and then a smaller medical malpractice firm, Williams hung out her own shingle in February. Her work was already entirely virtual pre-pandemic, but she says COVID-19 has inflicted a whole new set of concerns on nurses in regards to their professional licenses and susceptibility to being reported to the Board of Nursing.

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Initially nationwide, in March and on into late May, nurses and other health care professionals were concerned about having proper personal protection equipment. In this stage of the pandemic, Williams' professional experience has been more of nurses concerned with the mental strain involved in caring for COVID-19 patients while wearing the mask all day long.

This new practice landscape makes it imperative for nurses to learn about the laws that govern their licenses, Williams says. "It's important to also become aware of your professional responsibilities and start asking those questions you never asked before, especially, 'What can I do to protect myself and my nursing license?'"

These are some key steps, according to Williams:

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Recognize that Georgia is a mandatory reporting state. This didn't used to be the case. But as of July 1, 2014, a state law dictates that "Any nurse (this includes nurse administrators, nurse supervisors, nursing colleagues or other nurses) is required to report the name of any nurse (licensed practical nurse, registered nurse or advanced practice registered nurse) if there is reasonable cause to believe that the other nurse has violated any of the grounds for discipline provided in the Nurse Practice Act (O.C.G.A. 43-26-53)."

Others, too, are required to report "evidence that a nurse has violated any of the provisions of the Nurse Practice Act," including those who employ nurses and state agencies that license, register, or certify hospitals, nursing homes, home health agencies, or other types of health care facilities, according to the Georgia Board of Nursing.

Understand the two different types of claims that might be brought against you. Medical malpractice is addressed in state court, and your employer may insure you in case of those claims. But being reported to the licensing board is another matter entirely, and the reasons vary from that same medical malpractice to being reported for some other alleged professional misconduct or providing substandard care.

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Learn your employer's chain of command and policies. "You need to know that in case you're ever put in a situation where your license is threatened," Williams adds, "and you should be familiar with this information long before you ever need it. If you don't know it by heart, that's fine, but know where you can find this information, either in hard copy or online."

Nurses in 2020 especially need to know about confidentiality policies and what they can and can't post on social media. "You may think you know it, but have you read it?" Williams warns.

Also, take the time to get familiar with your hospital's COVID policies, she urges. "Your license protection should always be a priority," Williams says, "because it drives your ability to make a living."

Learn what regulations govern nursing practice. You can do this by taking continuing education courses that focus on professionalism, nursing laws and Board of Nursing investigations.

Get the insurance. Each nurse should have an individual insurance policy with license protection benefits, in Williams’ opinion. “Most employer policies only cover professional negligence claims resulting from care that the nurse provides at the employer’s facility,” she notes. “Employer policies typically do not provide license protection benefits. License protection policies can cover the cost of an attorney, up to a certain amount, so you can have an attorney defend your nurse’s license if you are reported to the Board of Nursing.”

Such policies can be as low as $150-$200 a year. Williams says she considers license protection insurance to be money well spent at a time when nurses could potentially face far more expensive legal battles to keep their licenses.

Some nurses will pay more for coverage, she notes. "It's like car insurance; they might upcharge you if you already have Board complaints on your record or other risk factors."

Be proactive if you think you might be facing charges. Nurses should seek legal advice “immediately if they believe that they may be reported to the Board of Nursing or if they are contacted by a Board of Nursing investigator,” Williams adds.