Quality & Patient Safety

Service animals in the ER

Patient Safety Monitor, September 19, 2017

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Balancing patients’ rights and their safety

At a Roaring 20s party this summer, I saw a flapper in a sparkly dress dance with her service dog, a husky in a red vest. The woman was having a great time, though the dog seemed confused by the whole situation.

While it was funny to watch then, what if the next day she and her service dog went to your hospital or clinic? Do you know if the dog can ride with her in an ambulance? Is the dog allowed in every area of the hospital? Who takes care of it if the patient becomes incapacitated during care?

Odds are you’ve probably seen service animals working in a variety of places: grocery stores, state fairs, restaurants, airports, offices, hotels, museums, etc. And in (most) situations, these animals don’t pose a problem. However, when anyone brings an animal into a healthcare setting, it’s reasonable to consider if its presence might pose a risk.

While fleas, ticks, mites, and more could undermine a facility’s pest and infection control efforts, facilities must also respect the rights of patients and visitors with disabilities to have service animals. Both The Joint Commission and Medicare Conditions of Participation require that hospitals respect and protect the rights of patients.

That said, balancing the need to keep medical settings safe and clean against the rights of patients with disabilities to bring service animals with them isn’t always easy. Applying the law correctly and consistently requires a significant amount of pre-work and communication, both within the organization and with the public.

The Americans with Disabilities Act
Generally speaking, government bodies, businesses, and nonprofit organizations that serve the public are required under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) to permit service animals in their facilities.

The ADA supersedes any and all breed-specific bans and prohibits facilities from requesting documentation to prove that the animal is a service animal. But there are limited circumstances in which covered entities can exclude such animals, according to the Disability Rights Section of the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ), Civil Rights Division.

“For example, in a hospital it would be inappropriate to exclude a service animal from areas such as patient rooms, clinics, cafeterias, or examination rooms,” the DOJ explained in a summary of the ADA’s provisions. “However, it may be appropriate to exclude a service animal from operating rooms or burn units where the animal’s presence may compromise a sterile environment.”

The ADA has a service animal fact sheet and an FAQ page on the topic.

This is an excerpt from a member only article. To read the article in its entirety, please login or subscribe to Patient Safety Monitor.

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