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Good Samaritan doctor receives complaint after helping burn victim overseas

Nov 2, 2015

Picture this… you are a guest at an elaborate wedding at a resort in India when another guest is circling the ceremonial fire, walking backwards behind the bride and groom taking photos, when his pants suddenly catch on fire. You administer first-aid and ultimately arrange for him to be admitted to hospital. However, upon returning to Australia you are shocked to receive a complaint from the guest’s relative alleging mismanagement.

Although doctors rarely receive a complaint after acting as a Good Samaritan, knowing where you stand in relation to your indemnity insurance coverage and the Good Samaritan protections in state legislation can help.

Case facts

In this case, the GP Avant member made sure that the guest, a young man, was rolled on to the ground to extinguish the flames and water was poured onto his burns. She arranged for the resort staff to place him into a cold bath to minimise the burns, however, when she checked on him later this had not been carried out, so she arranged for ice and cold water to be applied to his burn. She also administered analgesic medication. She recommended that the man be admitted to hospital for treatment, but he refused.

Later that day, the GP checked on the man again to find that the resort’s nurse had covered his burns with Aloe Vera cream and dressings. The GP gave him more analgesia and arranged for him to be given fluids and food.

The GP advised the man’s mother that the burns appeared to be superficial, but that his injury would need to be reassessed the next day.

After it became evident that the man’s burns were more serious, the GP arranged for an ambulance to transport him to a local hospital. The next morning, as scheduled, she departed for Australia with her family.

Shortly after she returned from her holiday, the GP received a complaint from the man’s mother alleging that she had mismanaged his treatment.

She immediately called Avant's Medico-legal Advisory Service for assistance and a Medical Advisor assisted her in drafting a letter in response to the man’s mother. Fortunately, no further action was taken.

Do you have a duty to act?

There is no common law requirement for doctors to provide assistance as a Good Samaritan in an emergency. However, Avant advises that in emergency situations doctors should follow the Medical Board of Australia's Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia.

The code encourages doctors to offer assistance in emergency situations, while taking into account your own safety and skills, the availability of other options, and the impact on any other patients in your care. Importantly, once doctors have begun to provide assistance, they should continue doing so until their services are no longer required.

Good Samaritan protection

Fortunately, in the case above, although the GP was overseas, she would be covered worldwide under Avant’s Practitioner Indemnity Insurance Policy for Good Samaritan acts, subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions of the policy.

Avant’s worldwide protection for Good Samaritan acts also means that members are covered if they provide assistance on a flight outside of Australia, subject to the terms, conditions and exclusions of the policy.

As the GP was overseas at the time of the emergency she would not be protected under the Civil Liability legislation that would normally protect her in Australia if she acted reasonably and in good faith.

Under this legislation, Good Samaritan doctors are not protected if they are significantly impaired by alcohol or drugs while rendering emergency assistance and an adverse outcome arises following their involvement.

As a general guide, if a doctor is over the legal drinking limit, they should consider whether they are capable of providing medical assistance.

Key lessons

  • Doctors rarely receive complaints after acting as a Good Samaritan and should not be discouraged from providing assistance.
  • The Medical Board of Australia's Good Medical Practice: A Code of Conduct for Doctors in Australia encourages doctors to offer assistance in emergency situations, while taking into account your own safety and skills, the availability of other options, and the impact on any other patients in your care.
  • Doctors should ensure the person is referred for appropriate ongoing or follow up care.
  • Once doctors have begun to provide assistance, they should continue doing so until their services are no longer required.
  • Doctors who are over the legal drinking limit should consider whether they are capable of providing medical assistance.

Learn more

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

You may also be interested in…

Our article ‘What is your legal duty on a plane?’ or a landmark case involving a Western Australian radiologist who successfully defended a charge of improper professional conduct for failing to render assistance at the scene of an accident.

Share your view

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