Dietitians and Nutritionists: What Are Your Legal Needs?

You’ve worked hard to earn your credentials and start a dietetic practice. Now stay abreast of the guidelines that apply to your specialty to limit your liability and stay legally compliant.

Nutritionist consulting with a client with fruits and vegetables.

If you have a dietetic practice, it’s crucial to know what laws surround your profession. Dieticians and nutritionists are regulated by federal law, state law, and Ethics for the Profession of Dietetics Committee, all of which are important to navigate. If you violate a law, you will likely also, in many cases, commit an ethics breach with your credentialing board.

Patient Confidentiality and Privacy

Like any other healthcare provider, nutritionists and dieticians must follow confidentiality and privacy laws. Principle 2H of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ Code of Ethics emphasizes that the dietetics practitioner must protect confidential information in accordance with regulations and laws.

The federal law, HIPAA, may apply. This act requires healthcare providers, including many registered dietitians and nutritionists, to establish and follow procedures. These procedures must ensure that when transferring, receiving, or handling protected health information, confidentiality, and security are maintained. This protected health information is any document related to an individual’s health with private information. 

Related articles:

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Why Your Notice of Privacy Practices Alone Doesn’t Satisfy Your HIPAA Obligations

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HIPAA Compliance & Breach Management

Scope of Practice and Professional Title 

Professional licensing helps protect the provider and consumers. Currently, there are no federal professional licensing requirements for registered dieticians—it is up to the states to establish these requirements. State professional licensing laws help consumers identify qualified practitioners and protect practicing dieticians. The specified services a practitioner is qualified for is known as the scope of practice. 

In determining eligibility, most states look to accredited education, experiences, and examination demonstrating competency. States and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics are concerned with protecting against unsafe or inaccurate nutrition advice and interventions that may lead to poor or dangerous health outcomes. 

States generally have four categories of licensing: none, certification, title protection, and licensure with a defined scope of practice.

  • None – Michigan is currently the only state with no laws covering professional licensing. However, within these states, anyone can provide advice around nutrition and dietetics. 
  • Certification – Some states have this, which provides state recognition of certain titles. However, they do not prevent non-licensed individuals from practicing nutrition. 
  • Title Protection – States with these laws place limitations on who may use titles. Only those that meet specific requirements set out by the state may use the titles. 
  • Licensure with a Defined Scope of Practice – Many states require a license to practice nutrition. This amounts to practice exclusivity. The law itself will define the scope of practice, which is strictly limited to licensed individuals. These laws require specific criteria, including education. 

Most restrictive states provide some exemptions. These include employment by certain agencies, those licensed in other areas of the law, and for general health and wellness education. 


Medical Malpractice Claims 

Malpractice occurrence is not common within nutrition and dietetics practice. However, it does arise. Between 1990 and 2007, there were 14 successful lawsuits. Most of the time, lawsuits arise in a hospital setting with surgery or a long term care facility, specifically with the elderly. Issues include wrongful death, unintended weight loss or gain, non-healing wounds, feeding tube issues, and complications of bariatric surgery. Referring to the Code of Ethics and giving the most reasonable, thoughtful care is the best way to avoid malpractice claims.

High-performance/Elite Athletes and Heightened Liability 

Athletes have precise health dilemmas that their dietitians need to be able to address, such as under-fueling, over or underweight athletes, disordered eating, or use of sports supplements. Medical concerns that may arise are anemia, low bone density, stress fractures, irregular menstrual cycles, and food allergies. Potential liability may arise when the registered dietician misses these issues. 

Supervision of Non-Licensed Practitioners

Dietitians and nutritionists may hire and supervise non-licensed providers. However, they are responsible for the actions of these non-licensed providers and may be liable for any unfavorable outcomes. To supervise, they need not be onsite at all times. They are, however, responsible for all actions and must be available for consultation. 

For guidance on the laws and regulations applicable to dietitians and nutritionists as well as requirements for starting or maintaining any healthcare practice, seek out an attorney with experience in the specialty. At Jackson LLP, we’re happy to help you, just reach out to one of our lawyers.

This blog is made for educational purposes and is not intended to be specific legal advice to any particular person. It does not create an attorney-client relationship between our firm and the reader and should not be used as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed attorney in your jurisdiction.

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