“Sometimes people who come to our ED simply leave without telling anyone if they have to wait any length of time. Are we on the hook for an EMTALA violation when that occurs?”
Generally, you are not. EDs are busy places and individuals may have to wait for care behind others based on priority and other factors. Some individuals may decide to leave and seek care elsewhere. That, in and of itself, is not an EMTALA violation. However, there are several instances where CMS has cited hospitals for “coercing” an individual to seek treatment at another facility. This type of activity – whether done directly by telling the individual they would be better off going somewhere else, or indirectly by routinely keeping people in the ED waiting so long that they get frustrated and leave– could create risk for the hospital.
However, assuming those types of activities are not in play, the best thing to do when an individual leaves the ED without being seen is to document the individual’s departure as soon as it is discovered and keep any other documentation that may have been created based on any interactions with the individual before he or she left.