What Is Early Discharge Malpractice?


What does the term “early discharge” mean in the context of a medical malpractice case? Let’s start with the second term, “discharge,” which refers to the action of a hospital releasing the patient from their care and sending them home. “Early” obviously refers to the timing – being released prematurely or too soon from the hospital is what qualifies as early discharge. Other ways to describe this are “premature discharge” and “untimely discharge.”

Many early discharge cases arise in the context of the emergency room. Emergency rooms (or ERs) are places where the hospital wants patients in and out – either the patient leaves the ER to go home or they leave the ER to be transferred to another wing of the hospital or an outpatient medical office. Either way, the hospital wants the patient in and out of the ER in quick fashion if possible so they can prioritize newly presenting patients.

Here are some examples of early discharge from the ER:

A woman goes to the ER because she has a terrible headache that she cannot get under control. The ER gives her a high dose of pain medication and that provides some relief. They discharge her. When she gets home, she starts slurring her words and it’s obvious to her family that she is suffering a stroke. She has to be rushed back to the hospital before her stroke causes permanent damage.

A teenager goes to the ER with shortness of breath. The ER says the difficulty breathing is because he’s having a panic attack and they help him calm down. When it appears that his breathing is more steady, they discharge him. In fact, the teenager was suffering from heart failure and needed emergency cardiac care.

A man goes to the ER after he is bit by his neighbor’s dog; the bite is swollen and painful. The ER gives him a shot of steroid and a high dose of pain medication and then discharges him. In fact, the swelling was evidence of a bacterial infection and the man dies days later because he was never prescribed an antibiotic.

Not all early discharge cases happen in the ER. Sometimes a patient could be treated as an outpatient when they should be kept overnight for further observation. And other times, a patient stays for a few days in the hospital and is released before being in properly stable condition.

And as you can see from the examples above, early discharge cases tend to be present where there is wrongful diagnosis (or “failure to diagnose”). When the diagnosis is wrong, the hospital tends to release the patient, thinking no further medical intervention is necessary.

Sadly, according to the Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality (AHRQ), the following socio-economic factors may contribute to early discharge: 

  •     Inadequate (or no) health insurance
  •     Homelessness
  •     Race/ethnicity
  •     Low income
  •     Poor comprehension or “health literacy”
  •     Lack of primary care physician

The AHRQ refers to early discharge as “discharge failure” because not treating patients with the proper standard of care is indeed a failure.

If you believe that you or a loved one was discharged from a healthcare setting too early, contact the medical malpractice lawyers at VSCP Law.


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