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Harv Rev Psychiatry. 2003 Nov-Dec;11(6):333-43.

Patients' rights and psychiatrists' duties: discharging patients against medical advice.

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  • 1Department of Psychiatry and Division of Forensic Psychiatry, University of California, Davis, Sacramento, CA 95817.


Every psychiatrist who treats voluntary inpatients has had or will have patients who leave the hospital against medical advice (AMA). Studies reveal that between 6 and 35 percent of voluntary psychiatric inpatients are discharged AMA. These patients often are acutely ill and have severe symptoms at discharge. They also, as a group, have high rehospitalization rates and worse outcomes than patients who do not leave AMA. When a mentally ill patient demands to leave the hospital AMA, a tension arises between the patient's rights and the psychiatrist's duties. These duties include those to the patient and, in many cases, to third parties. Patients discharged AMA may remain dangerous and can expose health care providers to a heightened liability risk. More importantly, because of such factors, decisions about handling the AMA discharge are more difficult than decisions about admission. This article analyzes the sources of increased liability risk posed by AMA discharges. It includes discussions of patients' rights, including the different types of voluntary admissions, and psychiatrists' duties. Malpractice litigation in this area is reviewed. The article concludes by suggesting risk-management techniques that can aid in protecting the psychiatrist while also respecting patients' rights and delivering good clinical care.

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