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What is the Unauthorized Practice of Medicine?

The unauthorized practice of medicine occurs when someone gives medical advice or treatment without a professional license. The prohibition against the unauthorized practice of medicine is a precaution against people who would try to treat others without the proper training, or by using unproven methods which could harm or even kill their supposed patients. As a result, all states make the unauthorized practice of medicine a criminal offense with potentially serious penalties. However, the practice of medicine itself is a slippery term which can be difficult to define.

What is the practice of medicine?

Since states are responsible for providing medical licenses, each state has a slightly different legal definition for the practice of medicine. In general, a person practices medicine when he or she tries to diagnose or cure an illness or injury, prescribes drugs, performs surgery, or claims he or she is a doctor.

Sometimes, activities that might be considered the unauthorized practice of medicine are legal even when performed by people without a medical license. For example, schools may administer prescription drugs to students who need them because a doctor has already prescribed the drugs, and it is generally considered safer than leaving the drugs in the students' hands.

On Medical Advice

The practice of medicine becomes trickier to define when you look at medical advice. There are a few guidelines, however, that can help define when "medical advice" is "the practice of medicine." In general, advice as the practice of medicine has several of the following qualities:

  • First, advice might be considered "the practice of medicine" when the person giving it claims he or she is a doctor. This is because the title of "doctor" indicates that the person giving advice has gone through the rigorous process of medical school and succeeded in obtaining a medical license. So your friends cannot be considered to be practicing medicine when they tell you to take more vitamin C, since they never claim to be doctors.
  • Second, advice may be the practice of medicine when the advice is specific to a particular person's illness or injury. Magazines and websites that offer general tips for getting over the common cold, therefore, are not engaging in the practice of medicine.

See FindLaw's sections on Medical Malpractice and Health Care Law for further information.

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