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On the scene of an accident: healthcare professionals assisting in emergencies

Ruanne Brell, BA LLB (Hons), Senior Legal Adviser, Advocacy, Education and Research, Avant

Monday, 8 May 2023

Car driving on road

Very early one morning you are on a quiet road. You hear an engine roaring then a screech and the sound of scraping metal and glass breaking. Can or should you stop to help?

Aid in medical emergencies

If you are confronted with an emergency where someone needs medical care, as a healthcare practitioner you have an ethical obligation to try to help and provide assistance where safe to do so.

If you do provide assistance, you should continue to do so until this is no longer required.

Can you choose not to get involved?

It is not usually an option to ignore an emergency – particularly if you are asked to help. In some jurisdictions, laws reinforce the ethical obligation – making it an offence or professional breach to ‘callously’ or unreasonably fail to provide assistance.

Context is important

However, there is no absolute obligation to assist. The law, and the professional codes of conduct, expect you will also need to consider:

  • your own safety – you are never expected to put yourself in harm’s way
  • the safety of any patients in your care
  • your skills and experience
  • your capacity to assist – including whether you are impaired by alcohol or drugs
  • the other options for assistance.

So if the scenario above took place outside your practice before your first patient arrived and you heard someone calling out that there’s been an accident, as a health practitioner you may be expected to go and see if you could help.

However, consider if it is 3.00 am on a dark remote road with no mobile reception and you have narrowly escaped the accident yourself. You might be fine to stop but it also might be reasonable to drive to a nearby police station for help, especially if you would put yourself in danger by going to investigate.

What if you are unable to help

In Avant’s experience, most practitioners do want to try to help if they can. The questions we hear are more likely to be about whether they are liable if something goes wrong.

In all Australian states and territories, there are legal protections known as ‘Good Samaritan’ provisions. These mean that if you attempt to help in an emergency with no expectation of payment or reward you generally cannot be sued personally, as long as you act in good faith and exercise reasonable care.

Can you assist if you have been drinking?

Now consider that the scene takes place as you are leaving a bar to walk home at closing time.The Good Samaritan protections generally do not apply if you are impaired by drugs or alcohol, but unfortunately there is no definitive answer to whether you can still assist if you have had one or two drinks. You will need to decide if you are fit to assist based on the nature of the emergency, how impaired you are, and who else can help.

Avant generally advises that in this situation you identify yourself and explain that you have been drinking and may be impaired.

When the emergency is outside your area of expertise

At an accident site, you are not expected to provide expert medical treatment or to be able to diagnose and treat issues outside your area of expertise.

If someone had sustained an eye injury in the accident you may be able to take the lead on dealing with that issue. Even if a situation is beyond your experience, any assistance is likely to be better than nothing at all, and any healthcare training better than none. If you have first aid skills or can liaise with emergency services, that may make a difference in the outcome. Your clinical experience may also mean you are the calmest person in attendance.

However, always be honest about your level of expertise and how recent your experience is.

After an accident

You might be asked to make a statement to police after an accident. This does not mean that your care is being criticised or questioned. We recommend you make a note about the event as soon as possible afterwards.

Even if you are very experienced, an accident scene is likely to be chaotic and distressing. Make sure you also take care of yourself and contact your indemnity provider if you need advice and support.

Resources

View our Key Support Services on our Health and Wellbeing page.

Disclaimer: Scenarios in this article are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental. The information in this article does not constitute legal advice or other professional advice and should not be relied upon as such. It is intended only to provide a summary and general overview on matters of interest and it is not intended to be comprehensive. You should seek legal or other professional advice before acting or relying on any of its content. The information in this article is current to [5/12/2022]. © Avant Mutual Group Limited 2023.

This article was originally published in Insight on February 27 2023.

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