Can You Sue a Hospital for Not Treating You?

In a medical emergency, most people instinctively head to the hospital for immediate care. Yet not everyone who needs urgent care and hospitalization will receive it. Some people leave the hospital after being refused treatment, and they suffer for it. What do you do if this happens to you? Is it medical malpractice to deny you medical care, and can you sue the hospital for it?

When Hospitals Must Treat Patients

Under federal law, privately owned and operated hospitals with Medicare approval must treat a patient in a medical emergency. Whether that patient has insurance, is in-network, or can pay for the services at all should not be considered in the moment. Emergency medical care must be given regardless. This rule is due to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) of 1986.

Also, public hospitals or those owned and fully funded by the government must treat any patient in a medical emergency. Treatments must also be provided when scheduled through the correct channels, regardless of the urgency of the patient’s health condition.

Once treatment has been given and the patient is considered stable, though, EMTALA laws allow hospitals to discharge the patient or arrange for their transfer to another medical facility. Even if continual medical care could worsen the patient’s condition, they can usually be released and refused further treatment once stabilized.

When Hospitals Can Deny Patients

A hospital or medical clinic can legally refuse to treat a patient if the:

  • Hospital does not have an emergency department.
  • Onsite equipment cannot properly care for the patient’s needs.
  • Patient is not experiencing what is considered a ‘medical emergency.’
  • Patient is putting the staff, other patients, or property in harm’s way.
  • Patient shows no apparent signs of injury and might be delusional.
  • Staff suspects the patient is attempting to commit prescription fraud.

Also, EMTALA does not regulate private doctors who work out of clinics considered to be a “private doctor’s office.” Private doctors have a broader range of reasons to refuse medical treatments than hospitals, medical institutions, and urgent/emergency care departments. For example, a private doctor can refuse to treat you if you have outstanding payments for past treatments or if their religious beliefs go against the treatments you are requesting from them.

What is an Emergency Medical Condition?

Most medical treatment refusals do hinge upon the patient not being in a medical emergency by definition. What exactly is a medical emergency or an emergency medical condition, though?

EMTALA defines an emergency medical condition as an injury or illness that can cause:

  • Severe impairment or loss of a bodily function or body part
  • Critical conditions or plummet of vital signs
  • Death

Furthermore, an emergency medical condition is usually one with sudden symptoms, rather than a gradual worsening of conditions like what can happen with most cancers, for example. EMTALA also requires hospitals to treat women who are or appear to be in labor to preserve her health and that of her unborn child.

Can You Sue for Denied Medical Care?

EMTALA attempts to ensure that everyone who needs emergency medical care can receive it right away. However, wrinkles in the law make it confusing to understand when a hospital can and can’t refuse medical treatments. If your medical condition worsened because you were refused treatment, and you think the hospital violated EMTALA regulations by refusing you, then you should speak with a medical malpractice attorney as soon as possible. With their guidance, you can easily learn about your rights and legal options to pursue compensation and justice.