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The Legalities and Liabilities of Being a Nurse Writer

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For some reason, I’ve been fielding a lot of questions lately about the potential liabilities involved in being a nurse writer. One person emailed to say her husband questioned whether this career was “even legal,” which admittedly cracked me up.

These questions mainly derive from a place of misunderstanding what health writing is and how it works. And while it’s true that being a freelance nurse writer involves some risk, I would argue it’s a far lower risk than we encounter in clinical practice.

Before I plunge in, my usual disclaimer: I am not an attorney, and I am not providing legal advice. I’m merely sharing my personal experiences and opinions about some of the legal issues involved in being a freelance health writer.

All freelance writing involves a small degree of risk

The person whose husband questioned the “legality” of being a nurse writer went on to say that she believed this concern derived from the idea that “nurse writing” or “health writing” involved penning medical advice columns, and the hubby was concerned about the legal liability involved in this.

Of course, not all health writing involves authoring consumer health articles. And even consumer health articles don’t necessary provide any sort of “advice.” Many times, these articles simply provide an overview of a health condition or an update on research findings.

Nonetheless, it’s good to think about the potential risks involved in nurse writing, because there is some risk involved in freelance writing of any kind. No doubt about it. It’s true that any person can sue someone else for any reason whatsoever.

That said, the risk of being sued as a writer is extremely low. During my 30-year career, I’ve only known one fellow writer who got sued. And that lawsuit ultimately was decided in my friend’s favor.

Still, the costs involved in defending a lawsuit, even a frivolous one, add up rapidly. Thus, it pays to understand the various types of potential liability issues in freelance health writing – and how to mitigate them.

Risk #1: Plagiarism

One of the common reasons a writer – nurse or otherwise – might get sued is for plagiarism. Plagiarism can involve more than directly copying/pasting words and phrases from a source. You always must be careful to properly credit the sources of facts, statistics, ideas, and other information you include in an article or content marketing asset.

To protect yourself against claims of plagiarism, you should thoroughly document your sources and also attribute relevant text in your work. Clients will tell you how to document your sources. Some of them want footnotes. Others simply want a list of the sources you consulted to write the piece. Others may want you to include hyperlinks in the text.

No matter what the client requires, in terms of sourcing, you must always – for your own records – maintain a detailed source list that documents every fact in your article or content asset. Nurses, in particular, must always be alert to subconsciously using their own nursing knowledge as the basis of a fact in an article. Your nursing knowledge can never be used as the “source” of a fact. For example, you cannot state something like “you should seek medical attention for a fever (defined as a body temperature above 100.4 degrees)” simply because “you know” “as a nurse” that a fever is a temperature over 100.4F. You must find a third-party source to document that fact.

Risk #2: Causing bodily injury by making blanket statements of fact

Based on the questions I field, I think nurses mainly worry about the risk of someone claiming bodily injury due to something the nurse wrote. It’s a possibility, I suppose, though I’ve not personally heard of it happening.

To avoid this, you must never make blanket statements of fact in an article or content asset. For example, you should never say something like, “You can take ibuprofen to relieve the pain and swelling of a sprained ankle,” because that blanket statement is not true for every reader. In fact, a reader who is allergic to ibuprofen could experience grave harm from your statement, which could lead to a lawsuit.

Avoiding this risk involves leveraging your writing talent. You should use what I call “weasel words” that introduce some ambiguity into any care instructions or suggestions you make in a health article.

Using the above example, you could rephrase the statement as, “You may take ibuprofen to relieve the pain and swelling of a sprained ankle” because “may” is not absolute in the way “can” is. You also could say “might consider” or “could consider.”

To protect yourself even further, you could say something like, “Most people can safely take ibuprofen….” Or, if you wish to be explicit, you could say, “People who are not allergic to ibuprofen may take it to relieve the pain and swelling of a sprained ankle.”

Always be mindful about blanket statements you may be making in health content and revise accordingly. Employing your writing skills to introduce ambiguity while also sourcing every fact can keep you safe from a potential bodily harm lawsuit.

One solution: media liability insurance

Having said all of this, I wish to emphasize once again how very rare it is for a writer to be sued. The risk of this is exceedingly low.

But if the risk bothers you, there is a specific type of insurance policy you can get to cover you in the event you’re sued over something you wrote. It’s called “media liability insurance” (also known as “media perils insurance” or “errors and omissions” insurance). I, myself, maintained one of these policies. They cost around $1,500 per year, on average, and you can choose coverage options up to $1 million per occurrence (which is what I had).

The only place I know of to obtain this insurance is through the Authors Guild, as linked above. It’s one of their member benefits.

I hope this sets your mind at ease regarding the potential liability involved in being a professional nurse writer. The risk of getting sued is minuscule, and the rewards of expanding your nursing impact through writing make the tiny risk more than worthwhile to take on.

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