Does the emergency medical treatment and labor act affect emergency department use?

William M. McDonnell, Christopher A. Gee, Nancy Mecham, Jessica Dahl-Olsen, Elisabeth Guenther

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

11 Scopus citations


Background: Emergency departments (EDs) face increasing patient volumes and economic pressures. These problems have been attributed to the Emergency Medical Treatment and Labor Act (EMTALA). Study objective: To determine whether modifying EMTALA might reduce ED use. Methods: We surveyed ED patients to assess their knowledge of hospitals' obligations to treat all patients regardless of insurance and to determine whether knowledge is associated with ED use. Results: Among 4136 study subjects, 72% reported awareness of the law. Sixty-one percent of subjects were moderate ED users (≥ 1 additional ED visit in 12 months). Moderate users more often knew the law (74% vs. 70%, p = 0.005). Multivariate regression showed that factors associated with moderate use were: Awareness of EMTALA (odds ratio [OR] 1.44; 95% confidence interval [CI] 1.24-1.67), adult patient (OR 1.94; 95% CI 1.69-2.22), and government insurance (OR 2.67; 95% CI 2.30-3.08) or uninsured (OR 1.72; 95% CI 1.42-2.08). Only 8% of subjects were high-frequency users (≥5 visits). High-frequency users were more often aware of EMTALA (78% vs. 72%, p = 0.02). Covariates associated with high frequency were EMTALA awareness (OR 1.69; 95% CI 1.28-2.24), adult patient (OR 2.59; 95% CI 2.00-3.36), and government insurance (OR 3.73; 95% CI 2.76-5.06) or uninsured (OR 3.77; 95% CI 2.65-5.35). Conclusion: Many patients know that the law requires hospitals to provide care. This knowledge is associated with more frequent ED use. EMTALA changes might reduce ED use, but broader policy implications should be considered.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)209-216
Number of pages8
JournalJournal of Emergency Medicine
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2013


  • emergency department crowding
  • emergency department utilization
  • emergency medical treatment and labor act
  • health care policy
  • health care regulation

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Emergency Medicine

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