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When are you expected to be a Good Samaritan?

Mar 19, 2014

Late last year, a West Australian Avant member was driving near Margaret River when he saw a man lying on the side of the road with a bicycle close by. He was clearly in need of medical assistance.

Our member made a split-second decision to stop and assist. The cyclist was unconscious and not breathing. As a result of our member’s resuscitation efforts, he was revived prior to the ambulance arriving.

But, what if he hadn’t stopped? 

CASE UPDATE - Dr Dekker’s guilty verdict overturned for leaving scene of accident

Case study: ‘improper conduct’

In 2002, another Western Australian doctor - Dr Dekker, a radiologist - was involved in a ‘near miss’ with another car after dark.

The doctor did not see the other car crash, but heard noise of an impact. She didn’t stop, but drove to the nearest police station to report the accident.

Eleven years later, under the Medical Act 1894 (WA) the West Australian State Administrative Tribunal1 found the doctor’s failure to stop and render assistance amounted to improper conduct in a professional respect (conduct that would reasonably be regarded as improper by professional colleagues of good repute). The tribunal noted that if she had not reported the accident to the police she would have been guilty of ‘infamous conduct’ (conduct that could justify striking the doctor from the register).

In finding the doctor guilty of improper conduct the Tribunal said:

  • While the doctor did not have a doctor-patient relationship with the occupants of the second car, based on her admission that she suspected there had been an accident with the potential for serious injury, there was a sufficiently close link between her conduct and the practice of medicine to create an ethical duty to render assistance.
  • The doctor should have assessed the situation and the injuries and rendered first aid.
  • Saving human life is a core purpose and ethic of the medical profession.
  • Even though the doctor had no medical equipment or first aid kit, her knowledge and skills as a medical practitioner would have enabled her to make an assessment and render first aid.

Since the introduction of the Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (as adopted by each state and territory), doctors - apart from those in New South Wales - can now be charged with ‘professional misconduct’ or ‘unprofessional conduct’. Doctors in New South Wales can be charged with ‘unsatisfactory professional conduct’ or ‘professional misconduct’. In all jurisdictions, an allegation of ‘professional misconduct’ is more serious and can result in suspension or deregistration.

What does this mean for you?

Under the National Law decisions made by individual tribunals can be persuasive in cases determined elsewhere. Regardless of where you live, you could risk a finding of unprofessional conduct if you fail to assist at an accident.

The duty to assist in an emergency is set out in the Medical Board of Australia’s Code of Conduct. The code states that: “Good medical practice involves offering assistance in an emergency that takes account of your own safety, your skills, the availability of other options and the impact on any other patients under your care”.

The code says that the ethical obligation continues until your services are no longer required. 
So, if you can provide assistance without compromising your safety, you are under an ethical obligation to assist to the extent you can (within your level of expertise).

This means that students are required to act within their level of experience. While they can’t say ‘I am a doctor’, they can offer first aid. Likewise, qualified doctors also need to act in accordance with their level of expertise.

If a patient requires resuscitation and you are unwilling to perform unprotected mouth-to-mouth ventilation, guidelines state that compression-only CPR is appropriate. 

Good Samaritan laws throughout Australia provide protection from legal liability as long as care is given in good faith and you are not impaired by drugs or alcohol at the time.

As a member of Avant, your Practitioner Indemnity Insurance Policy covers you, subject to its terms and conditions, for any claims that may arise in relation to you providing care as a Good Samaritan. It also extends to Good Samaritan acts worldwide.

If you need advice about giving Good Samaritan aid, call Avant’s Medico-legal Advisory Service on 1800 128 268.

Know your cover

For more information on how you are covered for Good Samaritan Acts in Australia and worldwide, refer to your relevant Avant policy:
Student Indemnity Insurance Policy
Practitioner Indemnity Insurance Policy (Interns, Doctors in Training, Hospital Employed Doctors, GPs, specialists, doctors winding down from practice).

1. Medical Board of Australia v Dekker [2013] WASAT 182

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We welcome your feedback on this article – email the Editor at: editor@avant.org.au