Handcuffs on a pile of pills

Emergency Department Psychiatric Holds: A Form of Medical Incarceration?

Wait times and length of stay in emergency departments are a hot topic and often result in a variety of identifiable harms that include medical error and failures to meet quality care measures. Patients with psychiatric conditions, including suicidal ideations, risk for harm to others, or psychosis, are particularly vulnerable to increased emergency department (ED) lengths of stay. The length of ED holds for psychiatric patients can be three-fold that of similar holds for medical patients. Lack of access to appropriate care, comorbid medical illness, or violent behavior can all contribute to this.

Increased length of stay impacts the efficiency of the ED itself, increasing wait times, utilizing human resources and physical space. It has a more important impact, however, on the patient. Patients may be held in a small room with constant observation for days with little or no access to natural light, bathing facilities or contact with family or friends. They may be dressed in paper gowns, told when to eat, when to sleep and confined to their room for days at a time, emulating the conditions in a maximum security prison. Emergency Departments, through no fault of their own, are becoming holding cells for patients who are both vulnerable and often marginalized.

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