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What is your legal duty as a ‘Good Samaritan’ on a plane?

Mar 16, 2016

In response to popular demand from our student members, we outline what you should do if you are on a plane and hear the following announcement: “If there is a doctor on board please make yourself known to the cabin crew.”

Your mind races, you have had a few drinks and wonder if you should admit that you are a medical student and offer to help? You are unsure because you are not a fully qualified doctor and the alcohol may have affected your ability to practise safely. You also wonder what your legal position is if you sit tight and don’t offer to help?

The law

In Australia there is no common law requirement for medical students and doctors to provide assistance as a ‘Good Samaritan’ in an emergency. However, medical students and doctors do have an ethical obligation to offer assistance in an emergency, taking into account your own safety, skills and the availability of other options.1

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.

The ethical duty to render assistance in the case of an emergency applies whether you are flying on a domestic or international carrier. Should you disclose you are a medical student?

As a medical student, you may think that you are not qualified or experienced enough to provide assistance in emergency situations. However, students are often trained in basic life support, and you may be the best medically qualified person available. Students can also assist other doctors (for example, by performing chest compressions) and are more likely to be able to effectively liaise with ground-support crew than lay people.

Failure to identify yourself as a medical student and render assistance could also expose you to the risk of a complaint to the Medical Board of Australia and being found liable of professional misconduct.

Are you impaired?

Alcohol and planes often go hand in hand, but if you feel you are, or may be, over the legal drinking limit, you need to consider whether you are capable of providing medical assistance. The same applies if you have taken medication that may adversely affect your level of competence and if you believe that your competence is compromised due to excessive fatigue.

If you decide that you are not capable of providing medical assistance, we recommend that you inform the cabin crew that you are a medical student and that you are, or may be, impaired. After determining the nature of the medical emergency, you can then assess the degree to which you may be able to help.

Emergency assistance on planes: 6 tips

If you find yourself in this situation and decide to offer emergency medical assistance on a plane, the following advice should help:

  • Inform the crew and the passenger about the limits of your medical experience and qualifications.
  • Ask the crew if they have access to surface medical support and if they do, request that they immediately contact their dedicated health care support service.
  • Obtain a history from the patient and obtain their consent before initiating any examination or treatment.
  • Consider your wellbeing, in particular the risk of cross-contamination.
  • If the patient speaks a different language, the airline’s surface health care support service may be able to provide a translator. Alternatively, you may be able to rely on a crew member or the patient’s family.
  • If the patient is unable to consent to treatment and there is no family member or ‘responsible person’ on board, you can proceed with treatment if you believe on reasonable grounds that the proposed treatment is in the patient’s best interests.

    Know your cover

    Your Student 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.

    You may also be interested in...

    Our news article about a Western Australian doctor, Dr Dekker, a radiologist, who was involved in a landmark improper professional conduct case for failing to render assistance at the scene of an accident or a Good Samaritan GP who received a complaint after helping a burn victim overseas.

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


    1. Medical Board of Australia’s Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia, section 2.5.

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