Cops and docs: The challenges for ED physicians balancing the police, state laws, and EMTALA

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State laws are awash with discord concerning whether a police officer's request or court order necessarily obligates physicians to perform a body fluid analysis of an arrested, conscious, nonconsenting suspect. Police typically bring arrestees directly to the emergency department (ED), and federal courts have begun to wrestle with the implications of the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA), which requires that anyone presenting to the ED be screened for treatment. Some state laws require health care providers to comply with any police request for lab analysis, while other states offer more leeway to physicians. Recent trends in federal case law interpreting EMTALA suggest that a medical screening exam is not required for patients brought by police specifically for a blood or urine sample unless either the arrestee requests medical care or a prudent observer would believe medical care was indicated. This article answers two questions: What happens when a police officer presents to the ED requesting service on behalf of an arrestee? What does EMTLA require of physicians in response? We survey current state statutes, review recent state and federal case law, describe example policies from various hospitals, and conclude with recommendations for hospital risk managers.

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