Virtual Mentor. March 2010, Volume 12, Number 3: 207-212.
Liability Considerations for Physician Volunteers in the U.S.
A discussion of the circumstances under which physicians who volunteer their services in the U.S. are protected from liability by federal or state law.
Lisa Benrud, PhD, JD, Jacqueline Darrah, JD, MA, and Alison Johnson, RN, MBA
Physicians are often asked to provide free or reduced-cost care to uninsured and underinsured community members. Most physicians are willing to help. Participation can take many forms, including seeing patients with Medicaid or other coverage where payment may not cover the cost of services; seeing patients without charge in the physician’s usual clinic; volunteering time at a clinic that provides free or reduced-cost care; treating those in homeless shelters, temporary clinics, or on the streets; and volunteering in disaster relief situations without a formal structure. Under these circumstances, the physician is often unfamiliar with patients and their histories and may be treating them for conditions or stages of disease that are not within the doctor’s regular scope of practice. Supplies and diagnostic capabilities may be limited or rudimentary, and, when treating patients with mental illness or substance abuse issues, the physician may not have access to behavioral health workers to help with treatment decisions.
Learning Objective Understand the circumstances under which physicians who volunteer their services in the U.S. are protected from liability by federal or state law.
Delivering care under these circumstances often presents liability concerns for physicians. If no fee is charged, does the responsibility of the malpractice carrier change? Do Good Samaritan laws provide protection from legal action, especially in the case of street work or in temporary situations?
The practice of medicine may be different in volunteer situations than in a traditional clinical setting. Physicians often rely on diagnostic algorithms when laboratory and other diagnostic tests are not available to the patient for financial or practical reasons. What kind of liability (if any) does the physician incur by diagnosing a patient and recommending treatment in the absence of the usual diagnostic tests? Physicians may also be concerned about issues related to incomplete treatment when they care for indigent populations. If treatment will be unavailable because the patient is uninsured, what is the use of diagnostic testing?
State Law Protections for Physician Volunteers
Physicians who volunteer in free clinics and community settings and for charitable organizations may be eligible for liability protection under both state and federal law. Most states have some form of limited liability or immunity for physicianswho volunteer their professional services, and some subsidize the purchase of malpractice insurance . These protections, and the circumstances under which they apply, vary widely by state. Although state immunity laws provide some protections for physicians who provide volunteer medical services, they do not guarantee that physicians will not be sued as a result of volunteering their professional services.
It is important to distinguish these state immunity laws from Good Samaritan laws. Good Samaritan laws protect health professionals only when they are providing care in emergency situations.
Federal Law Protections for Physician Volunteers
The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997: Volunteers of a Nonprofit or Governmental Entity. The Volunteer Protection Act of 1997 (VPA) was enacted to provide minimum protections for volunteers . Testimony in support of the legislation indicated that concern and uncertainty about the potential for personal liability acted as a significant deterrent to volunteering .
The VPA establishes a minimum level of protection for volunteers and preempts inconsistent state law unless the state law provides greater protection . A “volunteer” is defined as an individual performing services for a nonprofit organization or government entity who does not receive compensation (other than reasonable reimbursement or allowance for expenses incurred) or any other thing of value in lieu of compensation in excess of $500 per year .
The VPA provides immunity for harm caused by the acts or omissions of volunteers serving nonprofit organizations or governmental entities if:
Volunteers protected by the VPA are, however, still subject to state laws of the following types, which the VPA does not preempt:
If a volunteer is held liable under these conditions, the VPA limits the award of punitive damages to those cases in which there is clear and convincing evidence of willful or criminal misconduct or a conscious, flagrant indifference to the rights or safety of the individual harmed . The VPA does not apply to volunteers’ misconduct that constitutes a crime of violence or act of international terrorism, a hate crime, a sexual offense, a violation of state or federal civil rights law, or misconduct where the volunteer was under the influence of intoxicating alcohol or drugs .
The Federal Tort Claims Act: Volunteer Services Provided by Health Professionals.The Free Clinic Federal Tort Claims Act (FTCA) Medical Malpractice Program is another source of federal protection for physician volunteers . If all the requirements of the program are met, a health care professional volunteering for a qualifying free clinic will be “deemed” a public health service employee eligible for medical malpractice coverage under the FTCA [10, 11]. This provides the volunteer with immunity from medical malpractice lawsuits resulting from performance of medical, surgical, dental or related functions within the scope of the health care professional’s activity at the free clinic.
To qualify for the Free Clinic FTCA Medical Malpractice Program, the clinic and the volunteer health care professional must meet certain requirements. The health care clinic must qualify as a “free clinic,” defined as a health care facility operated by a nonprofit private entity (i.e., a 501(c)(3) organization) that:
A volunteer physician is considered a “free clinic health professional” under the program if the following conditions are met:
Practical Implications for Physician Volunteers
Physicians who volunteer typically need to obtain their own insurance to cover volunteer activities that fall outside federal or state immunity or protection. Physicians should consider the following questions when looking into volunteer opportunities.
Does your state have a statute that limits liability for physician volunteers, and if so, what type of protection does the state law provide? Listed below are the most common types of volunteer protection offered by state law. Because state laws vary widely, physicians must investigate what, if any, type of liability protection their state offers for physician volunteers. 
Is protection otherwise provided by federal law? These laws, as discussed above, provide a minimum level of protection for physician volunteers in all states.
Are there any conditions or limitations on the available liability protection? Both state and federal volunteer immunity laws typically include some conditions that must be met before the law affords any protection against liability. Most only apply to simple negligence. Therefore, a physician volunteer will not be protected for gross or reckless misconduct. Other common conditions are highlighted below. 
Are physicians and students immune from malpractice claims when providing volunteer services? The answer is “it depends.” State and federal laws may provide some protection, and the physician’s current malpractice carrier may also include coverage. (Protection from common negligence claims is the most common.) Fears of liability should not deter physicians from volunteering. Rather, physicians should ask questions about the opportunity, including the existence of applicable state immunity statutes, clinic qualification under federal law, and policies on liability limits and patient notification.
Lisa Benrud, PhD, JD, is an associate in the health law practice group of Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson in Minneapolis. She counsels providers and managed care plans about Medicare and Medicaid compliance and contracting issues. Prior to attending law school, Benrud spent several years as a clinical psychologist and clinical researcher in large health systems. She received her BA from Luther College, her PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, and her JD from the University of Minnesota.
Jacqueline Darrah, JD, MA, is a shareholder at Halleland Lewis Nilan & Johnson in Minneapolis, providing legal and compliance advice to all types of health care organizations, including health plans, hospitals, clinics, physician groups, and start-up companies. She has expertise in HIPAA, Medicare compliance, the Stark and anti-kickback laws, nonprofit organizations, and county-based health plans. She represents clients in compliance matters, creation and development of new businesses, and other general counsel concerns. Darrah received her legal degree from the Loyola School of Law in Chicago, her master’s in health care administration from the University of Illinois-Springfield, and her undergraduate degree from the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana.
Alison Johnson, RN, MBA, is part of Halleland Health Consulting, Inc., in Minneapolis. Her practice includes medical management strategies and community plans for vulnerable populations. Her nursing degree is from the University of Washington, she earned her MBA at Western Washington University, and she is currently a doctoral student in psychiatric nursing at the University of Minnesota. Her research interests include health care reform and behavioral health issues.
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