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Prematurely discharging patients is illegal, but common

Regardless of circumstances, a person who is suffering from a serious medical condition or injury should be able to visit an emergency department in a Washington hospital and expect to be examined and treated. In fact, according to The National Law Review, the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act was designed to hold hospitals accountable and prevent them from discharging patients without the care they need.

Even so, Healthcare Dive reports that premature discharge is an alarmingly common practice. If the facilities were ensuring that patients with health needs were taken to another hospital or clinic where they could receive care, it might be understandable. However, many patients are simply dropped off at bus stops or homeless shelters.

Why does this happen so often? One reason is the lack of resources for those with mental illnesses, who are among the most vulnerable to patient dumping. Someone who comes to the ER needing psychiatric hospitalization may be kept there for hours or even days waiting for a mental health bed to open up. Most ERs do not even have a psychiatrist on call, so there is no one to perform the necessary mental health screening to determine the level of care the patient needs or provide the treatment that stabilizes him or her.

Some of the contributors to the issue include a lack of regulatory oversight and enforcement, failure to train and educate hospital staff and a lack of hospital funds for compliance. Hospitals also frequently gather and keep inadequate data and records. So, unless an individual case gets media attention, such as the viral video of the patient being left at a bus stop in freezing temperatures, the problem does not come to light as often as it should.