A final year student contacted the MDU advice line after attending a party on the weekend when someone was taken ill. Fortunately, a junior doctor was also there and able to step in and deal with the emergency.
However, it led the student to wonder what his responsibilities were when encountering someone who was unwell outside of a clinical setting – particularly if his judgement might be impaired due to alcohol.
In contrast to some countries, such as France, doctors in the UK are not legally obliged to offer help in a medical emergency.
However, registered doctors do have an ethical duty to offer help where someone needs urgent assistance, wherever and whenever that may be. The GMC says that in the community doctors must offer help in an emergency if it arises, taking account of their safety, competence and availability of other options. They must also 'recognise and work within the limits of [their] competence'.
Those without a licence to practise – such as students or retired doctors – can assist in an emergency as long as they are clear about their GMC and professional status.
The MDU adviser told the student that, should a similar situation arise in future, he would need to decide whether his intervention was in the best interests of the patient, given:
- the potential seriousness of their condition
- the need for urgent treatment
- his own fitness to administer treatment
- whether there was a more suitable person present who could assist.
If the patient was conscious, he could take the opportunity to explain the situation and his professional status and obtain their consent to assist. A student must not give the impression that they are a qualified doctor and must make their experience and qualifications clear. If the patient was unconscious, he should assist them according to their best interests and the necessity of the immediate circumstances.
The student should also make a detailed record of the incident and his involvement and, if possible, make himself known to any witnesses present who are close to the patient. It's extremely rare for complaints to be brought against medical students or doctors who offer Good Samaritan assistance, but a detailed note is always a useful aid if the incident is brought up later on.
If you have any concerns, contact the MDU for advice.