Everything You Need to Know About Malpractice Insurance Coverage For Nutritionists

May 7, 2020 •

As a dietitian, you’re a wizard of wellness, a savant of gut strength. You recommend the food and lifestyle changes that clients need to feel healthy and happy. 

Though you probably aren’t prescribing medicine or operating on patients, you’re still a healthcare professional who is duty-bound to administer informed and responsible advice. Since dietitians and nutritionists often have positive relationships with patients, it may seem unlikely that a client would sue you for malpractice. 

Indeed, for many golden years, no malpractice lawsuit had ever been filed against a nutritionist. But as public attention in the US has become focused on the importance of healthy eating, the demand for nutrition experts in schools, clinics and hospitals has skyrocketed—and unfortunately, a spike in accusations has followed.

Here’s what you need to know about malpractice insurance for dietitians.

Dietitians and Malpractice Suits 

  1. Craig Busey of the American Dietitians Association (ADA) writes, “Liability is a fairly hot area in the dietetics field. It is always a matter of concern. There is probably still a lower risk of liability in dietetics compared with other professions, but the profession is catching up with other healthcare professions.”

How do you protect yourself against the increasing malpractice risk, so you can focus on changing people’s diets with a present mind?

Types of Claims Typically Filed Against dietitians

Let’s understand what types of malpractice claim you could encounter in your work.

Note: In order to lodge a credible malpractice claim against a dietitian, a person must be able to prove that the dietitian acted imprudently and failed to fulfill their duty to a client. Typically, claims of negligence against dietitians and nutritionists pertain to one of the following errors:

  1. Practicing outside the parameters of their training – Your responsibility is to suggest dietary changes based in current food science. A dietitian or nutritionist cannot take the place of a doctor, so they can’t diagnose a disease or alter a patient’s dosage of medicine without first consulting the physician. 
  2. Not keeping up to date – Nutrition is an evolving field, and every year new studies emerge to correct or supplement old conclusions. Even though your schooling is over, it is your obligation as a healthcare professional to continue reading up on news in the field and updating your practices accordingly. 
  3. Negligence/Unintentional error – Be thorough and hygienic in your practice. On the business side of things, take great care to ensure that the data you store on your computer system is secure, so that clients’ personal information is at low risk of being leaked or stolen.

When these are harmless mishaps, they may not seem worth purchasing insurance over. However, when these slight mishaps lead to a client developing an illness or injury—this could come with the claim of lost wages and legal defense fees.

What does Professional Liability Insurance for Nutritionists Cover? 

A few other demographics that leave dietitians particularly vulnerable to lawsuits are prenatal care patients, oncology patients, and clients with eating disorders. When you are working with vulnerable groups, as with all groups, it is critical for dietitians and nutritionists to protect themselves from the threat of a malpractice suit.

Enter professional liability insurance. 

Professional liability insurance, sometimes referred to as “errors and omissions insurance,” covers you for mistakes or perceived ones that you’ve made while on the job. Since a nutritionist’s mistake directly affects a client’s health, it is useful to protect yourself against allegations of negligence.

Individualized malpractice insurance for nutritionists could save you from significant financial loss, and preserve your professional reputation in your community.

Most professional liability insurance plans cover nutritionists for legal expenses when a claim or lawsuit threatens their practice, including:

  • Legal costs – This includes but is not limited to the cost of your own defense attorney, costs related to researching or investigating your defense claim, the cost for court fees and legal settlements, as well as the limits of liability, account for wages lost due to the suit.
  • Long-term care Conditions are risky for nutritionists in long-term care facilities because patients are medically vulnerable and subject to care each day from a slew of different people, including doctors, nurses, attendants, and more. If a patient has health problems, a litigious family member may file lawsuits against every employee at the facility, and claim that a dietitian did not feed them adequately.

Do You Need Malpractice Insurance if Your Employer Has It? 

For salaried dietitians who work for a company, school or clinic, it may not seem necessary to invest in your own insurance plan.  

Dr. Ellen M Pritchett told Today’s Dietitian, “If you’re not putting your hands on patients, ordering, or prescribing, you may be able to get away with an employer’s coverage. But when something goes wrong, it’s nice to have your own attorney. It’s not all that expensive yet.”  

Read through your employer’s group insurance policy extremely carefully. Not all group plans cover employees to the extent that they’d expect. If you are an independent contractor working within a larger organization, your employer’s insurance may not cover you at all. Depending on the claim brought against you, you may end up paying thousands of dollars out of pocket. 

Even if you are covered by your employer’s policy, it would be worthwhile to invest in your own plan anyway. If you are brought to court under your insurance, your lawyer will represent your employer’s interests. 

Average Cost of Malpractice Insurance vs. Cost of Lawsuits

The median average cost of liability insurance for a nutritionist is around $30 per month. By contrast, the cost of hiring a lawyer to defend you against even a small claim could easily top around $10,000 – $15,000.00. For a small business or an independent contractor, this amount of money could be financially devastating. If you want to learn more about how much nutritionist insurance costs, check out our blog post. 

Ways to Save Money on Your Insurance Plan 

You can save by keeping your insurance coverage continuous, rather than stopping and starting before and after projects. Though it may seem economically efficient to only enact coverage while you’re actually with a client, this method leaves you vulnerable to paying hundreds of thousands of dollars for claims filed weeks or months after the fact. 

Finally, by choosing an insurance policy designed for dietitians, one that is simple to understand and affordable, will grant you the peace of mind you want when working.

Other Ways to Protect Your Practice

Besides insuring your practice against malpractice suits, be sure to protect yourself from potential claims by practicing the following habits:

  • Keep up with current standards and research – Make sure that you are regularly checking the industry standards to ensure that your facility’s conditions and care practices are compliant. (The American Dietetic Association’s website lists these in a manifesto called ‘the Dietitian’s Practice Framework.’)

Additionally, stay updated on current research in the nutritional field to ensure that your recommendations are based in sound and current science. 

  • Document thoroughly – Update patients’ charts and take descriptive notes on client meetings. Make records of treatment that you’ve given, and log instances of monitoring patients’ progress. This will provide your side of the story should any mishap occur.
  • Ensure that all treatment is research-based – Ensure that your recommendations fall within the scope of duty for a registered dietitian, and are based in credible scientific research. Consult with a client’s physician about pre-existing medical conditions that may impact their dietary needs. 

Respectful, Reverential Care

The most critical way to protect your business and protect yourself from malpractice claims as a dietitian or a nutritionist is to treat patients with respect and compassion. Listen to them, care about their experience, and give thoughtful suggestions. Administer a patient experience survey after sessions, and take any feedback seriously.

Let your patients associate wellness with your warmth, kindness, and professionalism. If patients like you, they are both less likely to sue you and more likely to take your advice.

That’s a win-win.