Migraine and Headache Pain - Do Hospitals Have To Treat It?

by Teri Robert, MyMigraineConnection Lead Expert

It's a recurring question -- "If I go to the ER for a Migraine or headache, don't they have to treat me?"

There's no simple answer. Hospitals need to be accredited by JCAHO for many reasons, as described below. JCAHO standards aren't laws, but not meeting the standards can impact a hospital's accreditation.

Patients have the right to appropriate assessment and management of pain.

Intent of RI.1.2.9
Pain can be a common part of the patient experience; unrelieved pain has adverse physical and psychological effects. The patient's right to pain management is respected and supported. The health care organization plans, supports, and coordinates activities and resources to assure the pain of all patients is recognized and addressed appropriately...


A two-year collaboration between the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations (JCAHO) and the University of Wisconsin - Madison Medical School produced standards for pain management that went into effect January 1, 2001, which are excerpted above. What IS JCAHO? JCAHO is the predominant health care standards-setting and accrediting organization in the U.S. Their mission is to continually improve the safety and quality of patient care by providing accreditation, education, and consultation services. For hospitals, outpatient clinics, nursing homes, health care networks, behavioral health care providers, and some other health care providers, JCAHO accreditation is key for Medicare certification, liability insurance, managed care contracts, state licensure requirements, and community confidence.

What drove the development of these standards? Predominantly, this one fact, as stated at the 19th Annual Meeting of the American Pain Society:

Pain Is Undertreated Despite Years of Emphasis and Effective Therapies.

According to the report of that meeting, it was driven by "the reality that the undertreatment of pain is a major public health problem in the United States." These new standards require pain management to become an integral part of all treatment plans in nearly 18,000 accredited health care facilities. The standards are anticipated to dramatically impact the more than 120 million Americans dealing with pain. The standards call upon facilities to:

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