23 Patient and staff perspectives on the reasons for increasing emergency department attendances

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An NHS England review recognised that demand for Urgent and Emergency Care is unsustainable. Health practitioners and policy makers are interested in understanding the reasons why patients with low acuity problems attend the Emergency Department (ED). This should, in turn, assist the development of interventions to reduce demand.


We aimed to gain an understanding about the reasons for rising ED demand and to identify possible solutions.


481 surveys were completed. Increasing numbers of patients reported that a health professional advised them to attend the ED (31% in 1997 vs 50% in 2016). Awareness of alternative urgent care services had increased since 2006 but the perceived appropriateness of these services had decreased or stayed the same.


Interviews were carried out with 25 ED and urgent care staff. Reasons for attendance at the ED were divided into patient-level reasons (e.g., people are more demanding of the healthcare system; poor health literacy) and structural-level reasons (e.g., difficulties accessing primary care; alternative healthcare services directing patients to the ED inappropriately). Our participants described a wide range of interventions divided into patient-level interventions (e.g., increasing patient education) and system-level interventions (e.g., streaming patients into appropriate services), but there was no clear consensus with regards to which interventions had had the greatest impact.


We found evidence of a rise in patients being referred to the ED by other healthcare services. This may be a reflection of the wider healthcare system under strain, thereby causing overspill into EDs. Future research is needed to design and test interventions that can lead to improvements in the system that are acceptable to patients, do not lead to increased demand, are cost-effective and lead to more sustainable working environments.

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