When people have a medical emergency, they would expect an ambulance to take them to the nearest hospital for treatment. However, in the biggest cities in the country, including Chicago, that does not always happen. There is a practice hospitals implement called ambulance diversion. It occurs when a hospital is at capacity, and people at the hospital tell ambulance drivers to take patients elsewhere. It is completely legal, and it can have devastating results.
A 37-year-old woman who worked at the Medical College of Wisconsin cafeteria began to feel unwell early one morning. She began slurring her words, and her face drooped. She experienced a stroke, and she was only about 350 feet from one of the best stroke centers in the country. However, the ambulance did not take her there. Instead, the ambulance took her to a different hospital three miles away that offered limited stroke services. She died, and it was completely preventable.
Is it legal?
Ambulance diversion is completely legal. Federal law dictates that all hospitals have to see any patients who show up in the emergency room. They cannot turn away people who are already there. However, this law does not cover ambulances. Every day, ambulances receive orders now to appear at a certain hospital because they do not have the resources to treat any more people.
This practice received confirmation in a landmark 1993 case when a newborn in Chicago suddenly went into cardiac arrest. The newborn lived five blocks from the University of Chicago’s hospital, but the hospital diverted the ambulance. The child later died. In a court case, the judge ruled on the side of the hospital.
In the event someone sustained greater injuries due to ambulance diversion, there is a chance that person would be unable to acquire damages in a medical malpractice case. It remains a controversial tactic, and some hospitals in the country have begun to ban it or limit it to short periods of time.