Observations Ethics Man

Law, ethics, and the duty of care

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6804 (Published 10 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6804
  1. Daniel K Sokol, barrister and honorary senior lecturer in medical ethics at Imperial College London
  1. daniel.sokol{at}talk21.com

When it comes to duty of care, the law, unlike ethics, does not always yield a clear answer

One word that strikes fear in doctors is “negligence.” When I visit hospitals in the United Kingdom, I enter safe in the knowledge that no patient will sue me, even if one collapsed before my eyes. I have no duty of care to patients, and without such a duty there can be no negligence. Doctors, however, have a duty of care to their patients, and hence it is unusual, in a clinical negligence case, for the issue to be in dispute.

Stepping outside the hospital, must doctors stop by the roadside to assist a person in distress or respond to the dreaded call, “Is there a doctor on the plane?” If they do assist, they acquire a duty of care. The person becomes their patient. But should they help in the first place?

This is where law and ethics part ways. In UK law a passing doctor has no legal obligation to assist a person in distress. However, the General Medical Council’s Good …

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