The Law Offices of Brian E. Quinn

Q: Is there a doctor in the house? A: Gee, that depends...

You are a licensed physician out to dinner with friends. A man at the next table collapses; one of his tablemates dials 911 on his cellphone, and another shouts for help. If you do nothing, is your medical license at risk?

States, including Pennsylvania, have made it easier for doctors and other medical professionals to help in emergencies without worrying about liability. These Good Samaritan Laws only shield medical professionals who act in good faith, though. A doctor who acts with gross negligence may be liable for damages if the patient suffers further harm, but a doctor who believes that immediate care is necessary -- that the patient should not wait until the ambulance arrives -- will not be liable.

In Pennsylvania, the Good Samaritan Law includes additional safeguards: The physician need not be licensed in the Commonwealth to avoid liability. The statute covers "[a]ny physician or any other practitioner of the healing arts or any registered nurse, licensed by any state."

The legal question behind the law is about a physician's duty of care. Generally, a physician only has a duty of care for someone he or she has a "special relationship" with. The doctor-patient relationship is what gives rise to the duty.

There is, however, a difference between a legal duty and an ethical duty. Statutes and court opinions define the legal duty. The profession defines the ethical duty -- and both the American Medical Association and the state's medical and nursing boards expect that medical professionals will act ethically.

For example, according to the AMA, physicians have an ethical obligation to provide urgent medical care during epidemics, natural disasters, terrorist attacks and other national, regional or local times of need. This obligation exists even in the face of great personal health and safety concerns.

But what are the consequences for a practitioner who, say, continues to eat his dinner in spite of a flood or wildfire or earthquake?

That's a tough question. It should be noted, however, that the state medical board can suspend or revoke a medical license for unprofessional conduct, and unprofessional conduct includes an act that departs from an ethical standard of the profession. It's something to think about.

Source: Purdon's Pennsylvania Statutes and Consolidated Statutes, 42 PA CSA § 8331 and 63 PA CSA § 422.41, via WestlawNext

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