Doctors acting as Good Samaritans – are they liable for the care they provide?

Water fountain at Strathcona Island Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Water fountain at Strathcona Island Park in Medicine Hat, Alberta, Canada. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

A Good Samaritan is one who helps a stranger. Is there anything like a bad Samaritan? I don’t know.

“The parable of the Good Samaritan is a parable told by Jesus and is mentioned in only one of the gospels of the New Testament”, says an article in Wikipedia. So the concept of a Good Samaritan is not new. But in the present era of litigation, some people are reluctant to help a stranger in an emergency situation. For some, including physicians, nurses and paramedics, it is second nature to help strangers in physical danger.

“When an individual suddenly becomes ill or injured, doctors instinctively stop in the midst of their vacation, their business trip, or their work and offer assistance as good Samaritans, often under trying conditions”, says an article in the Canadian Medical Protective Association Bulletin (CMPA). The CMPA’s job is to provide legal assistance to doctors.

What are the physician’s ethical obligations?

  1. The College of Physicians and Surgeons of Alberta view physicians as having an ethical duty to do their best to attend to individuals in need of urgent care.
  2. The Canadian Medical Association’s Code of Ethics states that physicians should: “Provide whatever appropriate assistance you can to any person with an urgent need for medical care.”
  3. Quebec has its own code of ethics for physicians, which is enshrined in law, with similar requirements.

Are there legal obligations and risks?

The article in the CMPA bulletin says that legal obligations and risks can be more difficult to determine. Because emergencies can happen anywhere, at any time, physicians may find themselves being asked to provide emergency care in a variety of legal jurisdictions – within Canada or in another country, or in international airspace or waters if on an aircraft or ship. Different locations can mean different legal obligations.

Three things to remember about legal obligations:

  1. In Canada, most jurisdictions do not impose a legal duty or obligation on physicians to provide emergency medical services.
  2. All jurisdictions, however, have legislation that protects physicians who voluntarily provide emergency assistance at the scene of an accident or in an emergency.
  3. Quebec is the only province in Canada that imposes a legal duty on physicians to come to the aid of a person in a life-threatening emergency. Quebec’s Civil Code protects physicians from liability for that care.

CMPA does not think courts anywhere would criticize the conduct of a physician who in good faith treated a person in need of urgent medical attention. The CMPA does not know of any proceedings commenced against Canadian physicians in Canadian courts or in foreign courts alleging negligence in providing emergency medical attention as a good Samaritan.

CMPA says that when its members provide care in an emergency as good Samaritans they are generally eligible for CMPA assistance regardless of where the emergency care was delivered – anywhere in the world. Former CMPA members who act as good Samaritans are also eligible for CMPA assistance; they do not have to retain membership solely for this possibility.

With that in mind, the CMPA encourages its members to consider assisting when confronted with an accident or with sick or injured individuals in urgent or emergent circumstances.

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