Given the rising number of patients in need of medical attention since the start of the pandemic, the question “Can a hospital refuse treatment to patients?” has become a trending topic on a variety of search engines.

Hospitals can refuse to admit or treat certain patients without incurring liability. Although hospitals cannot deny treatment to individuals for discriminatory purposes (e.g., race, gender, sex, etc.), they can do so for other reasons, such as:

  • When a patient does not have insurance (note this only applies to non-emergency cases);
  • If the hospital is short on resources (e.g., not enough beds, staff, medicine, overcrowded, etc.);
  • When the hospital believes that the patient would receive better treatment at a different facility; and/or
  • If the hospital lacks the appropriate equipment or type of medical personnel required to properly treat a patient’s injury or illness.

In light of these reasons, many courts will apply the general rule of thumb that a hospital has no obligation to help every patient that walks through its doors.

When Can a Hospital Be Liable for Refusing to Admit or Treat Patients?

As discussed above, there are certain situations where a hospital can be held liable for refusing to admit or treat patients, such as if the hospital is denying treatment based on discriminatory reasons.

Another example of when a hospital may be held liable for refusing treatment is during an emergency situation. For instance, if a patient arrives in critical condition and failing to treat them will result in severe injuries or possibly death, then the hospital will be held responsible for turning away a patient who needs immediate medical attention.

Recently, due to Covid-19 conditions, there has been much debate over the question of can a hospital refuse service. The answer to this question is: it depends. There are a number of factors that will impact whether a hospital can be held liable under these new conditions, including:

  • How serious of a case a patient has (e.g., do they need emergency care or can they manage their symptoms at home?);
  • Whether the hospital has enough resources (e.g., did the facility run out of beds or equipment to treat the patient properly?);
  • What type of medical treatment the patient requires if they are not seeking Covid-related treatments (again this will turn on whether it is an emergency); and
  • Many other questions that can vary based on the circumstances surrounding the reasons for refusal.

Does it Matter Who Refuses to Provide Treatment?

It is important to keep in mind that it matters who the party was that refused a patient treatment. For one, the person refusing to provide medical treatment to the patient must be someone who is employed by the hospital. In addition, that person must also possess the authority to decide which patients can or cannot receive treatment.

In most cases, this generally will include any hospital staff that is in charge of the treatment and care of patients, such as doctors, nurses, and other relevant medical personnel.

Is the Reason for Refusing to Admit or Treat a Patient Important?

In some cases, it may be important to understand the reason as to why a hospital refused to admit or denied treatment to a patient.

For instance, if a doctor employed by the hospital uses their professional medical expertise to decide that a patient’s condition doesn’t require treatment, which in turn, results in a refusal for treatment, then a court will likely consider this a reasonable excuse to do so. In which case, the hospital will not be found liable.

On the other hand, if a doctor refuses to admit or treat a patient without ever considering the patient’s current medical condition, then some courts will find that the hospital should be held liable for refusing to admit or treat the patient. For example, there are some situations where a hospital can be held liable if they make a determination based on whether to treat patients with or without insurance.

According to the terms of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (“EMTALA”), a hospital cannot refuse a patient medical treatment if it is an emergency, regardless of whether the patient is insured or not. Thus, if a patient requires immediate medical attention or is in active labor, then a hospital can be held liable for refusing to admit or denying treatment to an uninsured patient.

In contrast, if a patient’s conditions do not fall under the protections offered by EMTALA, then the hospital may refuse to admit or treat the patient simply because they are uninsured. A hospital is a business after all, which means they will sometimes have to make tough decisions in order to protect themselves from liability.

How Can a Lawyer Help Me?

If you have suffered further injuries or illness due to being denied admittance or treatment by a hospital, then you should consider contacting a local personal injury lawyer for advice. Your attorney will be able to determine whether you have a viable claim, and if so, they can walk you through the process of recovering any damages you might be owed for the harm done to you.

In addition, an experienced personal injury lawyer can explain how the laws in your state might affect the outcome of your case, and can let you know whether there are any legal exceptions that may bar you from recovery. Your attorney will also be able to provide representation on your behalf in court if necessary, or can help you with negotiations during a settlement.