Good Samaritan acts

Helping out in an emergency and the medico-legal issues involved.

  • You have an ethical duty to provide what assistance you can in the circumstances if an emergency arises.
  • Make sure you have adequate indemnity in place. The MDU provides indemnity for doctors acting as Good Samaritans worldwide.
  • Obtain the patient's consent for any treatment you provide and maintain confidentiality.
  • Keep detailed notes of any incidents and the medical care you provide, even in an emergency.

Good Samaritan acts are defined as when doctors and other healthcare professionals who aren't on duty offer help in an emergency.

If you unexpectedly find yourself in a situation where someone needs medical assistance, whether in the UK or abroad, you have an ethical obligation to help if you can.

Are there any risks?

The MDU can provide worldwide medical indemnity for Good Samaritan acts to its members, but thankfully the risk to doctors of being sued after they have helped in an emergency is very low.

Additionally, the Social Action, Responsibility and Heroism Act 2015 helps to protect those acting in an emergency in England and Wales from legal action.

This Act states that when a court considers a negligence claim or breach of duty, it must consider whether the person was acting 'for the benefit of society or any of its members' or whether a person 'demonstrated a predominantly responsible approach towards protecting the safety or interests of others' or the person was 'acting heroically by intervening in an emergency to assist an individual in danger'.

Despite this, it's still important to understand the guidance and advice surrounding these situations.

Offering help

Although there is no legal obligation to do so, the GMC's guidelines state that doctors must offer help in an emergency. This could be in a clinical setting or in the wider community.

If you are ever called upon to help, you should take into account:

  • your safety – don't put yourself at unnecessary risk
  • your competence – don't try to work outside your abilities, or while under the influence of alcohol
  • the availability of other options – are more qualified or able people on the scene?

Where possible, you should also:

  • make a detailed record of the incident and your involvement
  • obtain consent from the patient
  • explain your actions and treatment to the patient.

Good Samaritan acts are quite different from so-called 'good neighbour acts' – like volunteering to provide medical support at local events. In such instances, doctors should check they are properly indemnified or insured before the event takes place. If unsure, contact the MDU on 0800 716 376.

MDU survey 

In a survey of 117 doctors in 2015, 88% had experienced at least one incident where they had been called upon to help a person in distress. Two doctors had been involved in more than five incidents in the preceding five years.

Results from the survey included:

  • Fainting was the most common condition a doctor helped someone with (25%) followed by cardiac arrests (12%) and head injuries (9%).
  • Public transport, including on aeroplanes, was the most common place for an incident to happen; this featured in 52 cases reported by members. The next most frequently mentioned setting was in the street (27 cases).
  • In the majority of cases, doctors received no recognition for the help they provided, although many pointed out they did not want or expect anything. Others received thank you cards, and in a few cases the doctor was rewarded with a gift ranging from a free meal to an airline upgrade.

Licence to practise

If you don't have a licence to practise – for example, if you've retired or you're a student – you can still offer assistance in an emergency. The GMC advises that not having a licence shouldn't stop doctors from helping in emergencies.

Non-licensed doctors must, however, be clear about their GMC status. It is a criminal offence to inaccurately present yourself as registered with or without a licence.

Advice for students

  • Medical students aren't strictly bound by the same ethical obligation to help as qualified doctors, but might still be faced with an emergency situation.
  • As a student, you should help if you feel able to do so.
  • Again, take into account the limits of your experience and knowledge.
  • The MDU can provide indemnity for doctors acting as Good Samaritans worldwide, including for students on their elective.

This page was correct at publication on 11/04/2018. 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.