January 26, 2023

From time to time, patients in our emergency department will leave without being seen (“LWBS”). Can we get in trouble under the EMTALA law when that happens?

Generally no, as long as you document the event correctly. Here is what the CMS Interpretive Guidelines for EMTALA say about LWBS:

If a screening examination reveals an emergency medical condition (EMC) and the individual is told to wait for treatment, but the individual leaves the hospital, the hospital did not “dump” the individual unless:

  • The individual left the emergency department based on a “suggestion” by the hospital;
  • The individual’s condition was an emergency, but the hospital was operating beyond its capacity and did not attempt to transfer the individual to another facility; or
  • If an individual leaves a hospital Against Medical Advice (AMA) or LWBS, on his or her own free will (no coercion or suggestion), the hospital is not in violation of EMTALA.

The Guidelines tell the surveyors to look for this:

In cases where an individual (or person acting on the individual’s behalf) withdrew the initial request for a medical screening examination (MSE) and/or treatment for an EMC and demanded his or her transfer, or demanded to leave the hospital, look for a signed informed refusal of examination and treatment form by either the individual or a person acting on the individual’s behalf. Hospital personnel must inform the individual (or person acting on his or her behalf) of the risks and benefits associated with the transfer or the patient’s refusal to seek further care. If the individual (or person acting on the individual’s behalf) refused to sign the consent form, look for documentation by the hospital personnel that states that the individual refused to sign the form. The fact that an individual has not signed the form is not, however, automatically a violation of the screening requirement. Hospitals must, under the regulations, use their best efforts to obtain a signature from an individual refusing further care.

So as long as you follow these guidelines, you should be OK.  But make sure your ED staff understand these rules.