When was the last time you went to A&E? Did you consider an alternative, like a pharmacy or a walk-in clinic? A new report says 1.5 million people are visiting A&E unnecessarily, but do we really have a choice?
I went to A&E about two months ago after concussing myself. Thankfully there was nothing seriously wrong, but with a head injury I like (well, maybe not like) to err on the side of caution.
And after four-hours of waiting around on a Saturday night, I’m not keen to go again. After being checked over by a doctor to ensure there was no seriously damage, I left with advice rather than treatment.
Why do we go to A&E?
According to research by Co-operative, 1.5 million people are visiting A&E ‘unnecessarily’ because their consultation only ended in advice or guidance. There’s nothing wrong with advice or guidance – in many cases this is the best response to an illness or injury.
But not all minor complaints can be diagnosed without specialist skills or equipment. Take a sprained ankle for example. Without an x-ray it’s very hard to tell the difference between a sprain and a close fracture (one that doesn’t have bone poking through it).
Going to a GP or a walk-in centre is all very well, but you’re likely to be referred on to A&E for an x-ray. And with a potentially fractured ankle, the last thing you want to do is stagger to A&E and join another lengthy queue when you’re in a lot of pain.
I also wonder about who went to A&E with ‘sprained muscles, stomach aches, minor burns and fevers’. How many of them were parents with children? I’m not a parent, but I know I wouldn’t be hanging about waiting to see my GP if I suspected my child’s high fever was meningitis.
A&E – what’s the alternative?
It’s better to be safe than sorry. And I don’t think that means we’re abusing the system or wasting A&E staff’s time. Most of us aren’t medical experts, and even if we have some knowledge of first aid, it’s just that – first aid.
And, as we highlighted in a previous Conversation, a lot of people head to A&E because they’re not conveniently ill during doctor surgery hours. Without an accessible alternative like a walk-in centre or polyclinic, there’s often little alternative.
While I agree with the report’s recommendation that some minor issues can be dealt with by your local pharmacist, they can’t prescribe medication like strong painkillers or antibiotics, so in some cases they’re not the most appropriate destination. They’re generally not open 24/7 anyway.
Untlimately, there will always be people who go to A&E for ‘minor’ issues, leaving with ‘just advice’. It may not be perfect, but until people are better educated about the alternatives (and the NHS is making a good start with its Choose Well initiative) we’re not going to see much of a change to the numbers quoted in this research.