Do You Have the Right to Leave the Hospital When You Want To?

patient with suitcase ready to leave hospital room
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People enjoy a variety of rights while they're in the hospital—rights to privacy, to safe care, and to culturally appropriate care top the list. They even have the right, in most cases, to leave when they want to, even if an early departure is against medical advice.

A General Right to Leave

All hospitals aren't alike. The bustling buildings we often think of as a hospital are generally classified as acute-care hospitals: They take care of people with routine or emergency medical or surgical needs.

Some hospitals keep people for long periods of time while they recover from serious injury. These long-term acute hospital or ​​subacute hospitals help to rehabilitate people who need it.

In general, if you're in an acute or subacute hospital, you have a right to leave whenever you wish. However, this right isn't absolute. If a physicians believe that your departure presents a significant risk to your health or safety, they can recommend against your discharge, although they aren't allowed to hold you against your will.

Discharge Against Medical Advice

A discharge against medical advice—usually just called an "AMA"—requires that you sign a form agreeing that you wish to leave but that your physician thinks it's a bad clinical choice for you to go. The signature waives your right to sue for complications arising from the early discharge and holds the hospital harmless for any subsequent problems that befall you.

You may also find that depending on the state and the hospital, your insurance company may refuse to pay for some or all of the stay, instead of transferring full financial responsibility to you.

Behavioral Health and Substance Abuse Hospitalizations

In some cases, your physician might decide that an underlying behavioral health or substance abuse problem means you present a serious risk to yourself or to others if you were to leave the relative safety of the hospital.

In those cases, the hospital can petition the court to have you temporarily committed to a psychiatric unit (which may or may not be in the same hospital) for mandatory observation. 

If you've been ordered to undergo involuntary observation for these reasons, you do not have the right to leave and the hospital staff may take all clinically appropriate steps to ensure that you remain under their care.

Guardians

A person under the supervision of a legal guardian may not leave the hospital without the guardian's consent. All minors are dependents of their parents, so only the parents can authorize a child's discharge. Adults with special needs or who lack the ability to make decisions on their own behalf will have a guardian appointed, often by a court. If a hospital was advised that a person is under the supervision of a legal guardian, then only that guardian can authorize early discharge.

Incarceration

Sometimes, people in the custody of law-enforcement officials require a visit to the hospital. In those cases, you are not free to go. Only the agency in whose custody you remain can authorize your release.

Refusing Discharge

Occasionally, people believe that they're being discharged too soon, rather than not soon enough.

Just as you have a right to leave early, you also have a right to protest a discharge before you're ready to go. There is a protocol for refusing discharge if you need it.

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