Blog | Thursday, October 23, 2008

Good Samaritans help (when it's needed)

Physicians can find themselves offering care in emergencies outside their medical practice, as happened this morning in front of the American College of Physicians' offices in Philadelphia. A bystander had a medical emergency outside our doors and an ACP physician responded.

Physicians don't always think about the duties and liabilities of offering help as a bystander during a moment of crisis. They offer what aid is needed. Most states extend liability protection to medically licensed caregivers who try to help; states that spell this out in plain English include Mississippi and Missouri although they are far from the only two.

As it turns out, most EMTs prefer not to have the help of a bystander, even one who is a doctor, said the ACP physician who rushed outside to offer help. EMTs can and should handle emergencies, and in this case, police and EMTs were already working on the patient's airway. Even in situations where the physician has started life support, once the EMTs arrive the doctor should relinquish control to the EMTs. And in this case, since ACP's offices are next door to Philadelphia's police headquarters, the situation was already in hand.

But the issue of offering emergency aid may be different after a mass crisis. Doctors have considered the impact of offering free-lance aid after the World Trade Center attack on Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina, or they are considering what the response should be to flu pandemics. The Georgetown Law Journal has a dense article on the pandemic question, and starting on page 34 it offers a state-by-state overview of Good Samaritan laws.