Factsheet: Emergency medical treatment
There are times when a person’s life is in danger and a decision about lifesustaining medical treatment must be made quickly. In most emergencies it will not be possible to obtain consent to treatment from the person or their substitute decision-maker. This factsheet explains the law relating to emergency (or urgent) medical treatment. It also discusses whether a person should be transferred to hospital for emergency treatment.
Clarifying the law
This factsheet explains:
- When emergency treatment can be provided
- Whether consent to that treatment is required, and who can consent
- Whether a person can refuse treatment in an emergency
- The law relating to Resuscitation Plans and orders
When can emergency treatment be provided?
Decisions about emergency treatment occur regularly in aged care, particularly when a person is approaching the end of life. Many of these decisions relate to life-sustaining treatment i.e. treatment that is needed to prolong a person’s life. Common examples of this type of treatment in an emergency situation include cardiopulmonary resuscitation, assisted ventilation, and blood transfusions.
In aged care, a decision may also be needed about whether the person should be taken to hospital for emergency treatment (discussed further below).
When consent cannot be obtained
The law about when emergency treatment can be provided if neither a person nor their substitute decision-maker can consent is complex, and differs between States and Territories.
Generally, it is lawful for a health professional or aged care worker to provide emergency treatment if there is an urgent need for treatment e.g. to save a person’s life, prevent serious damage to health, or prevent significant pain and distress.
The treatment given must be necessary to protect the person’s life or health at that time.
When consent can be obtained
It may still be possible, before emergency treatment is provided, to obtain consent either from a person with capacity, or their substitute decision-maker if the person lacks capacity.
Consent to treatment may also be given before an emergency situation arises e.g. in a person’s Advance Care Directive, or noted on a resident’s file.
The legislation in some States and Territories requires a health professional to make reasonable efforts (if practical) to find out whether the person has an Advance Care Directive before giving emergency treatment.
If there is an opportunity to obtain consent and a health professional does not do so, treating the person could result in civil or criminal liability.
For further information about consent to treatment and capacity read the ELDAC factsheet Capacity and consent to medical treatment.
The law about when emergency treatment can be provided differs throughout Australia. Learn more about the law in your State or Territory at End of Life Law in Australia.
Can emergency treatment be refused?
Emergency treatment cannot be provided if it has been lawfully refused:
- by the person themselves if they have capacity,
- in a valid Advance Care Directive, or
- by a substitute decision-maker.
A health professional who provides treatment contrary to a lawful refusal commits an assault on the person.
The guardianship and medical treatment legislation in some States and Territories requires health professionals to consider whether the person has previously refused the emergency treatment.
When a situation is urgent and a health professional does not know whether a refusal of treatment is valid, emergency treatment may be provided while this is being checked.
The law on emergency treatment differs across Australia. Learn more about the law in your State or Territory at End of Life Law in Australia.
Emergency treatment, and transfers to hospital
In emergency situations it is not uncommon for health professionals or aged care workers to be uncertain about whether or not an aged care resident should receive treatment, and/or be transferred to hospital. This dilemma may occur when, for example:
- A person with capacity states they do not want to go to hospital, and/or refuses treatment.
- A person lacks capacity and their substitute decision-maker:
- demands treatment be provided, despite an earlier decision that treatment should not be given; and/or
- instructs an aged care facility to transfer the resident to hospital for treatment, despite previously deciding the resident should not be transferred.
Hospital transfers and treatment provided against the wishes of a person (or which is not in their best interests) may result in unwanted, burdensome or non-beneficial treatment, and can cause distress to the person, their family, and health professionals. Treatment against a person’s wishes may be an assault and can also lead to criminal or civil liability for the health professionals involved.
What you can do
Know how to act in an emergency situation by doing the following:
For Aged Care facilities
- Have a conversation about Advance Care Planning with the person or their substitute decision-maker upon the person entering aged care.
- Discuss what treatment the person wants or does not want if an emergency situation arises.
- If the person wants to document their end of life decision, learn how this can be done by reading the ELDAC Advance Care Directives factsheet or visit Advance Care Planning Australia.
- If the person already has Advance Care Planning documentation (e.g. an Advance Care Directive or Resuscitation Plan) ensure it is properly recorded and can be easily located by (or is made known to) staff.
For aged care workers and General Practitioners
- Know your workplaces’ policies and procedures in relation to emergency situations.
- Know if the residents you care for have an Advance Care Directive, a Resuscitation Plan, and/or substitute decision-maker, and what the document says about treatment.
- Respect the person’s treatment decision. Remember that it is lawful for a person with capacity to refuse to go to hospital or to receive life-sustaining treatment even if it will result in their death.
- Know what the law says about providing treatment by reading the following ELDAC Legal Toolkit factsheets.
- Capacity and consent to medical treatment
- Advance Care Directives
- Substitute decision-making
- Withholding and withdrawing life-sustaining medical treatment
- Medication for pain and symptom relief for people with a life-limiting illness
- Futile or non-beneficial treatment
- Managing disputes.
Resuscitation Plans and the law
Some States and Territories have forms to guide clinical decision-making about cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) in emergencies. Examples include Resuscitation Plans (New South Wales) and Acute Resuscitation Plans (Queensland).
These forms are generally completed by hospital clinicians (following discussions with a person or their substitute decision-maker while a person is in hospital) to communicate whether emergency CPR would be futile or burdensome, or whether the person does not want that treatment.
If a resident has a Resuscitation Plan or similar order which refuses treatment, whether or not you are required to follow it will depend on the laws of your State or Territory. For more information read the ELDAC Advance Care Directives factsheet.
If you are unsure about following a Resuscitation Plan, ask questions!
The law in this area can be complex. If you are unsure about whether or not you should follow a Resuscitation Plan:
- Aged care workers: Discuss your concerns with your manager or the practice nurse. They may wish to seek legal advice about the appropriate course of action.
- General Practitioners: Seek advice from your medical insurer or your medical defence organisation.
- Find out more about Resuscitation Plans in your State or Territory by reading the ELDAC Legal Toolkit Resuscitation Plan guidelines and resources.
- Although the law differs between States and Territories, generally emergency treatment can be given without consent if neither the person nor their substitute decision-maker can provide consent and there is an urgent need for the treatment e.g. to save the person’s life, prevent serious damage to health, or prevent significant pain or distress.
- In some situations it may still be possible to obtain consent to emergency treatment e.g. from a person with capacity, or their substitute decision-maker. If a health professional could have obtained consent and did not, they may be liable under civil or criminal law.
- Emergency treatment can be lawfully refused either by a person with capacity; in an Advance Care Directive; or by a person’s substitute decision-maker.
- A person may have a Resuscitation Plan which provides instructions about resuscitation in an emergency. The law on this is complex and will depend on the law in each State and Territory.