Articles and Case Studies

When duty calls: responding in an emergency

10 Jul 2023

by Nerissa Ferrie and Dr Julian Walter

When ducty calls responding

As a medical practitioner in Australia, you have a duty to respond in an emergency situation. This duty arises from your professional obligations as a healthcare provider, as well as the community’s expectations that you will provide assistance in times of need. Members often ask about the nature of this duty, and the legal and ethical considerations that apply to doctors.

A duty as a medical practitioner to respond in an emergency was established (in certain circumstances) in the 1996 NSW civil case of Woods v Lowns.1 Based on now repealed legislation, an obligation was established to render urgent medical attention, even though the person was not a patient, absent reasonable cause. Under s139C of the National Law in NSW,2 a finding of unsatisfactory professional conduct could be made in similar circumstances.

The professional obligation is now codified in Good medical practice: a code of conduct for doctors in Australia:

Treating patients in emergencies requires doctors to consider a range of issues, in addition to the patient’s best care. Good medical practice involves offering assistance in an emergency that takes account of your own safety, your skills, the availability of other options, and the impact on any other patients under your care; and continuing to provide that assistance until your services are no longer required.

Legislation, such as the Good Samaritan laws in Australia, provides legal protection to individuals who provide assistance in good faith, without expectation of reward or remuneration. Practically, this may include providing first aid, calling for emergency services, or providing medical treatment if you’re qualified and equipped to do so.

Responding in an emergency can be particularly onerous if your practice is located within a shopping complex, or near a sporting ground. It’s important to have a good triage process in place, which may include the ability for practice nurses to respond in the first instance.

Your duty to respond in an emergency is not absolute. There may be circumstances where it’s not reasonable for you to provide assistance, such as if doing so would place you or others in danger (as in the case of Medical Board of Australia and Dekker [2013]).3 In addition, you’re not expected to provide assistance beyond your level of training or expertise, and you should always act within the limits of your qualifications and experience.

Obtaining consent from the patient may not be possible or practical in an emergency. You should act in the patient’s best interests, based on your professional judgement and available information, and make efforts to obtain informed consent as soon as possible.


  1. Woods v Lowns (1995) 36 NSWLR 344 ; Lowns v Woods [1996] Aust Torts Reports 81-376
  2. Health Practitioner Regulation National Law (NSW) – Sect 139C:
  3. Medical Board of Australia and Dekker [2013] WASAT 182

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Clinical, Complaints and Adverse Events, Consent, Practice Management, Regulation and Legislation, Anaesthesia, Dermatology, Emergency Medicine, General Practice, Intensive Care Medicine, Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Ophthalmology, Pathology, Psychiatry, Radiology, Sports Medicine, Surgery, Physician, Geriatric Medicine, Cardiology, Plastic And Reconstructive Surgery, Radiation Oncology, Paediatrics, Independent Medical Assessor - IME, Gastroenterology


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