The coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak is impacting us all. If you are a doctor, you may be wondering whether you have a duty or obligation to assist in dealing with the impact of coronavirus. It is important to understand your responsibilities, or you could be:

  • subject to a finding of unsatisfactory professional conduct or professional misconduct; and
  • risk losing your registration and ability to practise as a doctor. 

This article discusses your duty, as a doctor, to assist in emergency situations during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Your Duty to Assist During the Pandemic

COVID-19 was declared a pandemic by the World Health Organization on 12 March 2020 and we are, undoubtedly, facing a global emergency. As a doctor, you may be asking yourself: “What are my obligations to provide medical assistance during the COVID-19 pandemic?” 

The courts, the law and professional ethics all play a role in determining whether you as a doctor must provide assistance in emergencies. In short, your professional duty to assist will depend on a range of issues and the particular facts and circumstances of the emergency.

Duty of Care 

Previous court decisions, known as common law, may have implications for doctors and the pandemic.

In a New South Wales (NSW) case, a court found that a doctor had a duty of care to a boy who was not a patient who suffered from brain damage due to an epileptic fit. When the epileptic fit occurred, the boy’s sister ran to the doctor’s medical practice and asked him to come to their home to provide medical assistance. 

The doctor refused and advised that the boy be brought to his surgery. The boy suffered major brain damage due to lack of oxygen to his brain, leaving him permanently disabled. 

The NSW court found that the doctor had a duty of care to this boy; had the doctor provided the boy with medical assistance at his home, it is unlikely he would have suffered such serious health consequences.

Duty to Assist

Whether or not you have a duty to assist as a doctor can depend on the particular circumstances. 

In Western Australia, the courts found a doctor guilty of improper professional conduct for failing to assist at the scene of an accident. The doctor was involved in a near miss between her car and that of another driver. She then drove to a police station to report the incident, instead of stopping to assess and offer assistance to the people in the other car. 

However, the doctor appealed the decision and the court overturned the guilty verdict. The Western Australian Court of Appeal found that:

  • where an accident has occurred; and
  • the person in the accident is not the doctor’s patient;

there is no professional duty requirement for a doctor to attend and provide medical assistance to that person. 

Before any such duty can be found to exist, the following must be considered:

  • the doctor’s mental state;
  • the circumstances in which the doctor is in, or may be in; and
  • the circumstances of the accident. 

In this case, the doctor was shaken and “freaked out” from her own near miss. Compare this to the case of the boy who had the epileptic fit. Here, the doctor was at his medical practice when he was asked, in his professional capacity, to provide assistance and refused to do so without reasonable cause. 

Relevant Law

If you are a doctor in NSW, you must provide assistance if a person needs urgent medical attention.

Under national health practitioner law, a doctor practising in NSW may be guilty of unsatisfactory professional conduct if they refuse or fail, without a genuine reason:

  • to help a person in need of urgent medical assistance; and 
  • within a reasonable time.

However, such a finding is unlikely if you have taken all reasonable steps to ensure that another doctor attends to the incident within a reasonable time. 

While the law suggests that a doctor has a duty to assist in an emergency where requested to do so, it does not necessarily confirm a general duty to assist in an emergency. 

Professional Ethical Considerations

As a doctor, you also must comply with your professional and ethical obligations. In particular, all doctors in Australia must comply with the Medical Board of Australia’s Code of Conduct for doctors. This code states that: 

Treating patients in emergencies requires doctors to consider a range of issues, in addition to the patient’s best care. 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; and continuing to provide that assistance until your services are no longer required.

This confirms the idea that you as a doctor have a duty to assist in an emergency. However, such a duty only exists to the extent that your own:

  • safety;
  • particular skills;
  • availability of other options; and 
  • the impact on any other patients under that doctor’s care, 

are taken into account. 

COVID-19 and Implications For Doctors

So, what does this mean for doctors during the COVID-19 pandemic? 

If you are asked to provide assistance, precisely because you are a doctor, the answer will likely be ‘yes’, you are required to assist.

The Code of Conduct clearly states that ‘good medical practice involves offering assistance in an emergency’. 

While you may not be legally required to offer assistance, there is arguably an ethical obligation to use your skills and expertise to assist in an emergency where you can reasonably do so. Where you are requested to assist, this ethical obligation may extend to a legal one, particularly if you are a doctor practising in NSW.

What happens if you refuse a request to assist during COVID-19? Without reasonable cause, you could be subject to a finding of unsatisfactory conduct or professional misconduct. This could subsequently result in you losing your registration and ability to practise as a doctor. 

Key Takeaways

COVID-19 is having a huge impact on our community. As a doctor, you need to consider your legal and professional responsibilities to help during the pandemic.

If you are concerned about any legal issues arising from COVID-19 or have any questions about the legal impacts of COVID-19 on you or your practice, contact LegalVision’s coronavirus advice lawyers on 1300 544 755 or fill out the form on this page.

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