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Urgent care centers are distinct from emergency rooms by virtue of the amount of time patients can expect to wait, cost, and the acuity of care offered. A federal court in Rhode Island determined that, at least in one case, they can be held to the same requirements of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Active Labor Act (EMTALA) as hospital emergency departments, though. Friedrich, et al v South County Hospital Healthcare System, et al centered on the case of a woman who presented to the hospital’s urgent care clinic complaining of severe pain and burning in her chest and right arm; she was diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease, given medication, and sent home, then died the next day. A blog posted by the Medical Liability Mutual Insurance Company (MLMIC) points out that the decision focused on whether the urgent care clinic fell within the definition of a “dedicated emergency department” of the hospital, per definitions established by the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services. Under EMTALA, the patient would have been required to have a medical screening examination and, if deemed necessary, appropriate stabilizing treatment. In its bloc, MLMIC reasons that the most important question in the case was whether the clinic could be perceived by an individual as an appropriate place to go for emergency care. “Here, even though the hospital’s website stated that the urgent/walk-in care clinic was for ‘non-emergency needs,’ and that it did not provide ‘emergency room level care,’ the court found that a person driving by needing emergency care would not check the website first and based on the signage would not distinguish ‘urgent’ care from an emergency medical condition,” the post reads. “Since patients would believe that the urgent/walk-in care clinic was an appropriate place to go for emergency care, it was a ‘dedicated emergency department’ under EMTALA.” Operators of hospital-owned urgent care centers would be wise to consult with their insurers and liability attorneys to ensure distinctions between their urgent care and hospital ED facilities are made crystal clear to casual observers.

Federal Judge Says EMTALA Covers Hospital-Owned Urgent Care Center