After Graduation – Legal Tips for New Doctors

June is graduation season for new doctors in Arizona.  While graduating from medical or dental school is an enormous achievement, it may also be a time of uncertainty as you transition from the academic setting into your new career in the professional world.  The following are some legal and practical tips that might help you as you embark on your career.

  1. Make Sure You Are Financially Protected.

You need to make sure you protect yourself and your earning potential as much as possible.  In addition to the more obvious types of policies, like malpractice and life insurance, you should make sure you have disability insurance.  Several reports have shown that your chances of becoming disabled during your career are significantly higher than your chances of dying. According to the non-profit Council for Disability Awareness, one in four Americans will become disabled for 90 days or more during their careers.

Musculoskeletal disorders are the most common sources of disability, and for many doctors, especially dentists and surgeons, who must maintain a steady hand in often awkward positions for extended periods of time, the disability rates may even be higher.  A hand or back injury in the medical or dental field can be career-ending, so you should make sure that you protect yourself as much as possible.

  1. Make Sure You Are Contractually Protected.

Regardless of whether you are starting your own scratch practice, buying a pre-existing practice, or joining a group practice as an associate, you should have legal documents in place to ensure you are protected.

  • If you are opening your own practice, you should create a corporation or limited liability company for the practice to shield your personal assets from potential creditors and you will need to negotiate and execute a commercial lease.
  • If you are going to be working as an associate, you should have an employment agreement that clearly identifies critical terms like compensation, benefits and termination.
  1. Make Sure You Are Legally Protected.

Often up there with the fear of becoming disabled, the top concerns for doctors are often the fear of being sued, the fear of a board complaint and the fear of some other action by the government in what is becoming an increasingly-regulated healthcare environment.

There is no way to completely avoid these in modern practice, although we have previously posted tips on dealing with disgruntled current and former patients.  Many disputes that lead to malpractice lawsuits or board complaints are the result of billing disputes or communication issues, so a proactive approach can often be the best method of resolving issues before they become claims or complaints.

With respect to regulatory action, the best way to reduce the potential risk is to know what your obligations are, especially when it comes to patient privacy.  Most, if not all, dental and medical schools now teach students about privacy requirements, especially those found in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA).  However, learning about privacy guidelines in the classroom can be very different from the real-world issues you will face in practice.

The HIPAA requirements and their impact on patient care could fill several books, and are far too extensive to cover in a single blog post, but the general rule under HIPAA is that you need a patient’s written authorization to disclose any health information about that patient to anyone for any reason, other than payment or treatment.

The penalties for violating HIPAA can be severe.  Unknowing violations of HIPAA can be punished by a fine of at least $100 per disclosure, while violations caused by willful neglect can be punished by fines of $50,000 per disclosure, up to a maximum per year of $1.5 million, in addition to possible criminal charges.  You should therefore make sure that both you and your practice have safeguards for protected health information in place.

These are just some of the issues facing new doctors that may not have been covered in medical or dental school, but which can have significant impacts on their careers.  Doctors should consult experienced legal counsel if they have any questions regarding their specific circumstances.