Is a Missing Lip an Emergency Condition?

The medblogs are buzzing about University of Chicago's decision to treat a boy attacked by a pitbull without surgery.

Shadowfax has posted multiple times, most recently here; WhiteCoat has picked up on it here; and Scalpel has replied with a vigorous, bracingly conservative ripost here.

These three and others have framed the question as an EMTALA violation; is this a patient dump, or not? Is it illegal, or not? I'm more interested in how it framed the plight of modern EDs. I don't think, from what I've read, that there was an EMTALA violation. The boy was 'treated', and although his cosmetic outcome may well have been better, according to Dr. Grevious (no joke) once mom carted him across Chicago for immediate surgery, I think UCMC has a case.

More interestingly, the question is how can overwhelmed EDs possibly respond to crushing patient loads, the loss of subspecialty coverage, the mandate to see any and all regardless of pay, and all of this increasing as more and more EDs close and the federal government that forces us to see everyone subsidizes less and less? This on top of California's recent court decision that legally prevents EM groups from seeking additional compensation for services rendered from the patient. From our perspective, what exactly are we supposed to do? Chicago was trying to dispo out people who don't need emergency care. That's OK with me; tons of people abuse the ED although they are overall the minority. I think they picked a horrible time to do it with this kid--but, then, maybe they did it on purpose. No plastics available? Fine. No subspecialty care? Fine. America, this is what you get from us, they are (possibly) saying. You get the care you pay for. And when co-pays in the ED are zero, medicare reduces payments towards zero, states disallow collection of fees, we all end up with...well, zero happy stakeholders.

It's easy for me to say I care about cosmesis and wound outcomes and I'll fix a lot. I didn't see the kid, it might well have been beyond me, and besides, I work in a pediatric ED sometimes with triple attending coverage and three or four residents for twenty rooms, and we still have visit times up around four or five hours. I can see UCMC's side, easy--even if I also feel for that poor kid who couldn't get his lip sewn after he was a chew toy for a pit bull. If we can't take care of that, we're in trouble. Maybe UCMC is just pointing that out to society.

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