Patient Evidence vs Patient Rights: What Clinicians Need to Know About Complying With Law Enforcement

Emergency department, ambulances
Emergency department, ambulances
Healthcare professionals must know applicable law and policies when complying with law enforcement demands for patient evidence.

Healthcare professionals must know applicable law and institutional policy when complying with law enforcement demands for evidence from patients, according to a recent article published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

The recent case of Alex Wubbels, a nurse from Salt Lake City who refused to comply with a police detective’s request for a blood sample from an unconscious motor vehicle accident victim not suspected of having violated any law, is a case in point. Arthur R. Derse, MD, JD, of the Center for Bioethics and Medical Humanities, Medical College of Wisconsin, reviewed the legal and ethical implications involved in the case.

Medical professionals can be caught between the legal and ethical obligations of informed consent and the legal obligations of complying with law enforcement orders. 

Decisions can be more complex when considering the variability of state statues, some of which require that medical personnel comply with law enforcement requests, while others maintain that under some circumstances, healthcare personnel may be held liable for battery if they obtain specimens to enable criminal prosecution rather than to further necessary medical care.

Dr Derse argues that, “clinicians who consider law enforcement demands for evidence must know applicable law and institutional policy and must consider demands in light of the ethical compass of their profession.”

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He further adds that when a clinician’s obligations to a patient are threatened by a demand from law enforcement personnel that opposes the clinician’s professional ethical principles, then he or she should object, state the reason, and refuse to comply. Nonetheless, clinicians must carefully weigh the potential for physical danger to themselves when safeguarding patients. Physically obstructing an armed officer from obtaining a specimen to protect a patient’s constitutional rights is not the duty of healthcare professionals. At this point, it is the duty of the courts to determine whether a patient’s civil rights were violated.


Derse AR. Health care professionals and law enforcement [published online November 8, 2017]. N Engl J Med. 2017. doi: 10.1056/NEJMp1711988

This article originally appeared on Medical Bag