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Hospital 'patient-dumping' endangers vulnerable lives

A very disturbing video has been making the media rounds. It shows a clearly disoriented and possibly mentally-challenged woman -- clad only in socks and a gaping hospital gown on a frigid night -- is wheeled out of a hospital on January 9 by security officers after being discharged. They proceeded to leave the woman at a bus stop.

A passerby, a practicing psychotherapist with an office across from the hospital, saw the events unfolding and recorded a cellphone video, which subsequently went viral. In addition to filming the security officers dumping the patient, the man questioned them as to why it was appropriate to leave a nearly naked, distressed patient outside to fend for herself on a night that dipped below freezing.

Patient-dumping is a fairly common event

The security personnel and their supervisor had no sufficient answer for this egregious instance of what is known as "patient-dumping," i.e., putting patients on the streets instead of continuing to treat them or connect them with the mental health resources or social services they desperately need.

In the case of this particular patient, who appeared to be nonverbal, a potentially lethal outcome was averted by the Good Samaritan's timely intervention. In a media interview, the psychotherapist expressed his outrage at the callous way the woman was treated by hospital employees.

He said, "At first I was shocked. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. And I move [sic] beyond that . . . I became ... irritated and fearful for the young lady. And then I became angry."

He eventually dialed 911 for an ambulance that took the woman right back to the hospital that had just discharged her to the streets.

A centuries-old practice continues

While many people have never heard of the term, patient-dumping certainly isn't new. It happens at medical facilities all over the United States. Back in the 1870s, The New York Times reported that private hospitals were sending all of their indigent patients to New York City's public hospital, Bellevue.

The inhumane practice continued until President Reagan signed the Emergency Medical Treatment & Labor Act (EMTLA) in 1986. The Act forbids hospital emergency rooms from denying medical services to patients due to their inability to pay for them. It also prohibits hospitals from discharging and transferring patients who haven't been stabilized.

Yet the patient dumping continued. When patients were harmed by discharge policies that failed to meet the standard of care, some of those who took legal action were awarded six- and seven-figure settlements by juries all over the country.

The elephant in the emergency room

It's a clinical reality that some patients are unpleasant to treat. They can become aggressive, behave in socially unacceptable ways due to mental illness, and disrupt the normal ebb and flow of a busy emergency room. None of those reasons are justification for jeopardizing patients' safety by improperly discharging them to fend for themselves when they are clearly unable to do so.

If you or a family member experienced adverse events or a worsened condition due to being improperly discharged from a medical facility, you may have grounds to seek financial compensation for your injuries and other damages.

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