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What is the Unauthorized Practice of Medicine?

Providing medical advice without a medical license is an unauthorized practice of medicine.

A professional license is necessary because professionals work with the public. So, the government has an interest in protecting the public from harm. In healthcare services, such as medicine, this harm can be fatal.

Individual states regulate the practice of law within their borders. The unauthorized practice of medicine is a criminal offense in all states. Criminal offenses range from misdemeanors to felonies. Civil penalties range from education to the revocation of a medical license.

This article explores the practice of medicine. It also explores the unauthorized practice of medicine and the medical practice act. Continue reading to learn more about this critical public health issue.

What Is the Unauthorized Practice of Medicine?

For example, doctoral-prepared nurse practitioners cannot use "doctor." They need a disclaimer. Even though they provide medical treatment and advice, they are not doctors.

The nurse practitioner must identify as a nurse, not a medical doctor. This is because they are not licensed to practice medicine. This is one example of the unlicensed practice of medicine. Another example is a medical assistant performing a medical procedure. That is practicing medicine without a license.

What Is the Practice of Medicine?

The practice of medicine includes those activities that someone "licensed to practice as a health professional" can "perform." Medical practice is a matter of public health. States are responsible for public health within their borders. They are also responsible for regulating the practice of medicine. States do this through boards of medicine and state-level medical practice acts.

These regulations help boards of medicine fulfill their missions. Boards of medicine license, discipline, and regulate physicians. The scope of practice varies among the states and sometimes can provide an expansive role for certain healthcare positions.

Medical Practice Acts

Medical practice acts help define the medical practice law in individual states. State legislatures adopt these regulations that provide guidelines for licensure. The guidelines help the public identify the unauthorized practice of medicine. These guidelines include the following:

  • Medical education requirements
  • Fitness for licensure requirements
  • Continuing medical education requirements
  • The term for each license
  • The conditions for license renewal
  • The terms of practice for medical students, residents, and visiting physicians
  • Licensure fees

Medical Boards

Professional boards exist to protect the public. Some boards of medicine are part of the local Department of Health. In the case of licensed physicians, a board of medicine is also protecting public health. According to the Federation of Medical Boards, boards of medicine have a three-part mandate. This mandate includes:

  • Protecting public health
  • Protecting public safety
  • Protecting the general welfare

They do this through "the proper licensing, disciplining and regulation of physicians." State regulation through boards of medicine gives the public greater access to help.

State law gives boards of medicine the authority to license physicians. In some states, they license other healthcare providers. These other healthcare professionals can include, but are not limited to:

  • Physician assistants
  • Naturopathic doctors
  • Podiatrists
  • Chiropractors
  • Acupuncturists
  • Athletic trainers
  • Radiographers
  • Nuclear medicine technicians
  • Respiratory care practitioners

Boards of medicine investigate complaints against physicians. They also discipline physicians who don't meet proscribed standards of care. They do this through the licensure of professionals, including healthcare practitioners.


Physicians receive their licenses through the state where they practice medicine. For example, a physician licensed in Florida cannot give medical advice to a patient in New York.

Individual state law defines the practice of medicine. Maryland provides an example. In Maryland, the practice of medicine is well-defined. It includes "engaging, in medical diagnosis, healing treatment or surgery." This is with or without compensation. The medical practice also includes doing, attempting to, or professing to:

  • Diagnose
  • Heal
  • Treat
  • Prevent
  • Prescribe for any physical, emotional, or mental ailment or medical condition

The State of Maryland also clarifies what is not the practice of medicine. This includes selling non-prescription drugs, massages, or the practice of optometry. This clarification is helpful for the public.

A medical degree is the first step to becoming a licensed physician in all states. A medical degree is necessary to provide medical services and medical treatment. Medical school graduates must pass all necessary licensing exams.

Graduates go on to receive a provisional license to complete their medical residencies. Under the provisional license, residents can practice at a local healthcare facility. After residency and passing all exams, residents can apply for full licensure.


Boards of medicine are also responsible for physician discipline. This is part of their mandate to protect public health and public trust. They establish a basic level of competency and "ethical behavior for physicians."This can include other healthcare professionals.

One essential patient right is to file a complaint against an unethical physician. With the patient relationship, physicians adhere to medical ethics. They must also provide excellent medical care. Behaviors that lead to complaints can include:

  • Tampering with medical records
  • Practicing under an impairment
  • Abusing controlled substances

Patients can file complaints against licensed physicians if they engage in these behaviors or others. After receiving a complaint, the board of medicine will conduct an investigation. The outcome of the investigation will determine the level of disciplinary action. Disciplinary actions range from referrals for mental health treatment to rehabilitation. Boards of medicine can refer criminal behavior to law enforcement.


Revocation of a medical license is an extreme disciplinary action for extreme behavior. A few examples of such behavior include:

  • Unethical or unprofessional conduct
  • Conviction of a crime
  • Incapacity, personal or professional
  • Gross negligence in patient care

Continuing to practice medicine after license revocation is a crime. It is, by definition, the unauthorized practice of medicine.

Medical Advice

The practice of medicine becomes trickier to define when you look at medical advice. A few guidelines can help clarify when "medical advice" is "the practice of medicine." In general, advice in the practice of medicine has several of the following qualities:

  • The person giving it claims they are a doctor. A doctor has graduated from medical school and received a medical license. The friend who recommends vitamin C for a cold is not practicing medicine.
  • If the advice is specific to an individual's illness or injury, it may be the practice of medicine. For example, an unlicensed herbalist prescribes ginger for a stomach ache. That person needs a disclaimer to ensure the public knows they are not a licensed physician.

Get Help

Navigating the regulatory side of medical practice is challenging. Healthcare practitioners need a valid license to practice medicine. Patients who believe a healthcare provider does not have a license have options. Get legal advice from a local, experienced medical malpractice or healthcare attorney today.

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