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We’ve all watched the scene play out on television or at the movies – a character collapses in a public place, and immediately someone calls out, “Is there a doctor in the house?” Always, a daring physician dashes to aid. A new study released this week by UNC Family Medicine researchers proves this may be one case where the movies are startling similar to real-life.

Chapel Hill, NC — The North Carolina Good Samaritan Study, recently conducted by researchers at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine, Department of Family Medicine and Gillings School of Global Public Health, is the first large-scale study of the opinions and experiences of American physicians from different specialties with Good Samaritan behavior since the 1960s. One thousand physicians from across North Carolina were surveyed and the results are encouraging.

This study, published in BMJ Open, is the first to report that doctors who were more familiar with Good Samaritan laws were statistically more likely to intervene than physicians who were not familiar with the laws. The research sheds new light on the effectiveness of laws on physician behavior. “This finding suggests that laws can change physician actions and perhaps encourage them to provide assistance,” said lead author William Garneau, MPH, a fourth-year medical student at UNC. “This is a finding that we think will be of particular interest to policymakers.”

A Good Samaritan is commonly defined as an individual who intervenes to assist another without a previous responsibility and without compensation. North Carolina, as well as states throughout the country, offer protection to health care providers who act as Good Samaritans from claims of negligence. In the NC Good Samaritan Study, four out of five doctors responding to the survey reported that they have had previous opportunities to be a Good Samaritan, and 93% reported that they did indeed help during that situation. The most often cited reason for not intervening was because somebody else had already taken charge of the situation.

The study did not find a statistical difference in the responsiveness between doctors of different genders, age, or level of experience. Additionally, the type of doctor had no bearing on their likelihood to intervene – primary care doctors, for example, were just as likely as surgeons to have assisted a stranger. Interestingly, only fifty percent felt they were knowledgeable about the Good Samaritan law.

“The link that we found in our work, that doctors who were familiar with Good Samaritan laws were more likely to act, does not necessarily prove that these laws lead to better outcomes for patients,” cautions associate professor Dr. Anthony Viera, from UNC’s Department of Family Medicine, “but the finding does support the notion that the laws may mitigate hesitancy to act.” “Of course, the hope is that early intervention by someone with medical training will lead to better outcomes.”

Co-author Dean Harris, J.D., is Clinical Associate Professor in the Department of Health Policy and Management in the Gillings School of Global Public Health. He teaches courses on health law, comparative health systems and global perspectives on ethical issues. Anthony Viera, M.D., M.P.H., is an Associate Professor and the Charles B. Wilkerson Distinguished Scholar in the Department of Family Medicine at UNC. He also holds appointments as Adjunct Associate Professor in the Public Health Leadership Program and in the Department of Epidemiology.

Immediate Release — March 14, 2016
Contact: Donna Parker, MPH,, 919-843-4760