OBJECTIVE: To define the role of the accident and emergency (A&E) short stay ward by a survey of departments in the United Kingdom and review of published reports. METHODS: A postal questionnaire with telephone follow up to all major A&E departments with short stay beds. RESULTS: 95 departments were found to have short stay beds. These units received between 19000 and 121000 new patients per year (mean 51000, median 50500) and had access to between two and 20 beds (mean 7.5, median 6). The level of provision varied from one bed per 2440 new attendances to one bed per 27250 new attendances (mean 8380, median 6625). Where data on admission rates were available the departments admitted between 0.1% and 13.3% of their new attendances (mean 2.62%, median 1.9%). Cover was typically provided by an A&E senior house officer with frequent senior ward rounds. While the casemix usually included minor head injuries and alcohol intoxicated patients, there was considerable variation in the cases admitted. CONCLUSIONS: Short stay provision is highly variable in the United Kingdom. While there are many reports of well run short stay units, consistent evidence of clinical value and cost-effectiveness compared to other methods of care is lacking. Further comparative studies are required to define the role of the A&E short stay ward.
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