Can I refuse to treat a patient if there is inadequate PPE?

We know our members are using their best efforts to try and resolve problems raised by the lack of availability of appropriate PPE pragmatically. Some are worried about the implications if they refuse treatment on this basis.

The GMC has addressed this issue in its ethical hub, stating:

"We do not expect doctors to leave patients without treatment, but we also don't expect them to provide care without regard to the risks to themselves or others. This pandemic is an unprecedented challenge in which clinicians are understandably balancing the imperative to provide care with their own fears."

The GMC guidance goes on to address the question of whether doctors will face criticism if they refuse to treat a patient: "If a concern was raised with us about a doctor refusing to treat a patient because of their concerns about inadequate PPE, we would need to look at the specifics and manner of that refusal, as we would with any other concern referred to us."

The guidance also says that the doctor should be able to show that careful consideration was given to how the situation might be resolved, in particular:

  • whether treatment can be delayed, or provided by another team
  • what course of action is likely to result in the least harm
  • whether alternative actions or additional steps can be taken to minimise the risk of transmission
  • whether any doctors or other healthcare professionals are at a higher risk from infection than other colleagues.

As well as considerations about patients' health, and your own, you will need to take into account that if you became infected, it could also place other patients, colleagues and anyone else you come into contact with at risk of infection, and you will not be able to work.

It's essential to make a full record of how you have carefully considered all these points and of the efforts you have made to work with colleagues to provide the best care in the circumstances.

Clearly this is not a question with a black and white answer. If you find yourself in this situation and want to talk through your approach, contact our 24-hour medico-legal helpline on 0800 716 646.

What do I do if I get complaints or GMC investigations about any aspect of my work during the COVID-19 outbreak?

It's possible for complaints and GMC referrals to be made during or as a result of this COVID-19 outbreak.

We're here to assist in the usual way and it's important that members continue to seek our advice with any medico-legal problems as soon as they arise by contacting our free helpline.

This page was correct at publication on 17/12/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.