Can Paramedics Refuse To Treat Patients?

March 20, 2018


Work Safety


Tolu Ajiboye

In recent times, there has been a concerning spate of attacks on medical and emergency service staff by patients. In one case that happened just some months ago, a paramedic was sprayed in the face with a can of aerosol deodorant by one of the young patients she was called to treat. In another, a 19-year-old patient viciously bit one of the paramedics who had come to his home to treat him. If it were not for the intervention of the second paramedic who was able to subdue the patient, who knows what else could have happened?

Medical staff, especially paramedics, have always been susceptible to being harmed by the patients they treat. Being on the front line, they are exposed to all sorts of risks, especially as their job often means they have to enter the homes of their patients. What is worrying is how high the number of attacks- verbal and physical- is.  Between July 2015 and June 2017, there were at least 414 deliberate attacks on Queensland paramedics when they were doing their jobs. These attacks and violent situations have been shown to have an extremely negative effect on the mental and physical well-being of these workers.

All of this has now prompted a look at the questions. Do medics have to treat all patients? Can they decide not to treat some patients in order to protect themselves?

Do paramedics have to treat all patients?

Paramedics at a car accident

Currently, in Queensland paramedics must treat every patient who calls for assistance and needs it. It is only in situations where the patient refuses to be treated and gives valid reasons that the paramedic can decide not to. In any other situation, refusal to treat a patient will result in disciplinary measures being taken against the paramedic by the management of the ambulance service. This principle was also solidly established by the courts in the case of Griffiths v Kent.

What about their safety?

Kid in ambulance with ventilator

Can Queensland paramedics make decisions to not treat certain patients if they fear for their safety? The answer is no. There is no law, rule or regulation in place that allows them to make that call . For now, the only protections in place for paramedics are after the fact and are targeted at deterring patients from harming/attempting to hurt them. For example, in Victoria, there is a minimum jail sentence of 6 months for intentionally assaulting or injuring an emergency worker. But some policymakers have determined that this isn’t enough. Data shows that the major factors behind violent attacks on healthcare workers are drugs and alcohol. This means that simply sentencing the offending patients after the fact is not likely to help prevent future incidents.

In New South Wales, a different tactic is being tried out. As a response to about 20 reports of attacks on emergency workers since the start of 2018, the NSW Health Minister. Brad Hazzard, is now authorising ambulance officers to undertake risk assessment during emergency responses and “then make a judgment call on each patient.”

But for Queensland paramedics, everyday on the job still remains unknown. There is hope that with NSW changing laws to empower paramedics to make judgement calls, hopefully Queensland will soon follow. And then in the future, more long-lasting solutions to ensure our paramedics safety will be implemented and they will be able to do their job without fear of personal harm or injury.

Tolu Ajiboye

Tolu Ajiboye is a contributor to the Smith's Lawyers blog for topics including injury recovery and mental health. Her work has been published by The Guardian, NBC News, Health Magazine and Entrepreneur Magazine.