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Adults aged 16 to 44 years are more likely to attend emergency departments for non-urgent presentations than older adults. They were more than three times more likely to present for non-urgent reasons than those over 65 years. Non-urgent attendances are also more common during out-of-hours periods, especially at night.

Emergency departments are consistently under high pressure with long waiting times. Understanding the characteristics of non-urgent attendances that could be managed in the community could help to reduce pressures on emergency and ambulance services.

This NIHR-funded study analysed three years’ worth of data (2011-14) from emergency departments within one large region of England representing rural, urban and suburban areas. Fifteen percent of over 3.6 million first time attendances among adults were non-urgent. Twenty percent of non-urgent attendances arrived by ambulance.

These patients could be managed in more appropriate services. Understanding the underlying reasons for unnecessary emergency services use – such as difficulties accessing primary care or uncertainty around where best to seek care – may help future service reconfiguration.

Why was this study needed?

The pressure on emergency services in England continues to rise. Hospital Episode Statistics (HES) and A&E Attendances and Emergency Admissions Monthly Situation Reports data showed that in 2017/18 there were 23.8 million attendances in emergency departments in England. This was a 2% increase on 2016/17 and a 22% rise since 2008/09.  The four-hour wait target was achieved for 88% of attendances. The national target of 95% has not been met since 2013/14. Latest Ambulance Quality Indicators data shows there were nine million ambulance call-outs in 2014/15, a 6% rise on the preceding year.

NHS Digital defines unnecessary emergency department attendance as a "First attendance with some recorded treatments or investigations all of which may have been reasonably provided by a GP, followed by discharge home or to GP care." Sixteen percent of emergency department attendances in 2015-17 were defined as unnecessary.

This research aimed to profile such non-urgent emergency department attendances that could be managed in alternative services like primary care or walk-in centres.

What did this study do?

This study analysed three years of HES data for emergency departments across 13 acute trusts in the Yorkshire and Humber region between April 2011 and March 2014. Data was collected on all adults (aged 16 or above) who attended type 1 emergency departments; that is those providing 24-hour, consultant-led, multispecialty services with full resuscitation facilities.

Patient data included age and gender, time of arrival and assessment, type of arrival (by ambulance or other), source of referral (self-referred or by another professional), investigations, diagnosis and treatment. Non-urgent attendance was defined as first-time access of a type 1 emergency service where the patient did not receive investigations, treatments or referral requiring type 1 facilities, but which could have been provided routinely in primary care. Patients who left the emergency department without being seen were also considered to be non-urgent attendees.

What did it find?

  • Over three years, 554,564 of a total 3,667,601 first time attendances (15.1%) were defined as non-urgent. However, there was a small decrease during this period of 205 fewer attendances each year (95% confidence interval [CI] -294 to -115).
  • Nearly two-thirds of non-urgent attendances, 346,274 (62.4%) occurred during out-of-hours periods. Patients with non-urgent reasons for attendance were 19% more likely to present out-of-hours (odds ratio [OR] 1.19, 95% CI 1.18 to 1.20). This tended to be late night/early morning each night, but with a peak on Sunday mornings between the hours of 3 and 4am.
  • Younger adults aged 16 to 44 years accounted for two-thirds, 365,716 (65.9%) of all non-urgent attendances. This age group had more than tripled odds of non-urgent presentation compared with those aged 65 and over (OR 3.81, 95% CI 3.78 to 3.85).  Most of these presentations among adults aged 16 to 44 years (68%) were also out-of-hours.
  • Twenty percent of all non-urgent presentations arrived by ambulance. Three-quarters of all of these ambulance arrivals were in the out-of-hours period.  The proportion of non-urgent cases arriving by ambulance went down over the three years studied.
  • More than one in seven patients in one region attended emergency departments for non-urgent reasons.

What does current guidance say on this issue?

The NHS Five Year Forward View initiative aims to transform urgent and emergency care services. Strategies include:

  • providing round-the-clock urgent care centres to divert non-urgent cases from emergency departments;
  • increasing GP evening and weekend appointments;
  • implementing changes to ambulance and 111 delivery models to reduce the rate of growth in demand for emergency department services; and
  • increasing specialist mental health care so that it is available in all emergency departments 24 hours per day.

Similar approaches have been implemented in recent years in NHS Wales, particularly to expand out-of-hours services.

What are the implications?

This research provides valuable insight into patterns of non-urgent emergency services use, notably that it is most common out-of-hours and among younger adults. Younger adults may not be aware of other services for less serious conditions or could have lower thresholds for attending emergency departments, perhaps because of work commitments. The service needs to continue to find ways of diverting these people to more appropriate services and take the pressure off busy emergency departments.

Another important finding from this study was that one in five non-urgent cases arrived by ambulance, largely out of hours.  This proportion went down over the three years studied and may have reduced further since 2014 given efforts by ambulance trusts to increase non-conveyance rates where appropriate.

It would be interesting to see whether findings are similar for children.

Citation and Funding

O’Keefe C, Mason S, Jacques R, Nicholl J. Characterising non-urgent users of the emergency department (ED): a retrospective analysis of routine ED data. PLoS ONE. 2018; 13(2):e0192855

This study was funded by the NIHR Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care Yorkshire and the Humber.


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Produced by the University of Southampton and Bazian on behalf of NIHR through the NIHR Dissemination Centre

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