Health practitioners and especially those working in hospitals will at some point be required to work through an emergency situation when faced with a serious illness or injury or to save a patient’s life. In some instances the health practitioner’s own health and safety may be jeopardised by going to another person’s aid.

These risks to health care professionals arise in many different scenarios such as accidental exposure to blood and body fluids. Another area where they may arise is in the re-positioning of patients in emergency situations, especially to assist them with breathing. The recent Victorian Court of Appeal case of Wodonga Regional Health Service v Hopgood1 involved a nurse who injured herself repositioning a patient.

On 20 June 2006, a nurse working in the emergency department at the Wodonga Hospital injured her back when she re-positioned a patient who was having a fit in order to open his airway. The nurse was 1 of 2 rostered on that night with 1 doctor also rostered on [these staffing levels were changed following the incident, with the number of nurses being increased from 2 to 4 and doctors from 1 to 2]. Prior to intervening the nurse had called for assistance, but received no response. In intervening, she did not hit the emergency button in accordance with the hospital’s ‘Code Blue’ emergency policy nor did she adhere to the hospital’s ‘no lift’ manual handling policy.

The nurse sued the hospital in negligence and for breach of statutory duty. She succeeded before a jury at trial. The hospital appealed. The hospital argued that the presence of additional staff would not have prevented the injury and that the nurse contributed to her fate by failing to adhere to the ‘no lift’ manual handling policy and the ‘Code Blue’ emergency policy. The appeal was unsuccessful.

The Court accepted that the nurse did not have time to wait for people to respond to the emergency call. The Court said that the nurse’s “...professional duty was to do everything reasonably possible to save...” the patient.2She simply could not afford to wait if she were going save the patient’s life.”3 The Court was critical of the hospital’s staffing levels. The Court held there to have been “...insufficient staff to deal with the foreseeable exigencies of a true emergency...” and that the nurse was constrained, in circumstances of great urgency, to act on her own.4

A health practitioner faced with a similar emergency is faced with the choice of:

  1. Intervening and potentially hurting themselves; or
  2. Waiting for assistance, which could cause (further) injury or death to the patient. This in turn could result in a medical negligence claim being made against the health practitioner/hospital.

Hospitals and health practices therefore need to be well prepared by having well thought out policies, staff well trained in emergency procedures and the equipment and staff necessary to implement policies.

At a time when staff numbers are being cut across the board it seems inevitable that similar situations with similar results will unfortunately arise. So as not to jeopardise insurance cover, full details of staffing levels ought to be provided to liability insurers of hospitals or health practices.