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One size does not fit all. View 2
  1. K Castille1,
  2. M Cooke, A&E advisor2
  1. 1Director of Emergency Sevices, NHS Modernisation Agency, UK
  2. 2Department of Health, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Karen Castille, NHS Modernisation Agency, Richmond House, 79 Whitehall, London SW1A 2NS, UK; 

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The advantage of having senior clinicians seeing and dealing with patients at the earliest possible opportunity is virtually uncontested across a wide spectrum of healthcare services. The concept of See and Treat is entirely based on this premise, and it is therefore not surprising that it works. The benefits of See and Treat, as part of an emergency department system are clear:

  • Significant reductions in both the time that each patient has to wait and the total number of patients waiting at any one time

  • Improvement in both patient experience and staff job satisfaction (concerns about staff job satisfaction emanate from those who have not tried it, rather than those who have)

Leaman offers a good description of See and Treat. His criticism seems to be mostly confined to the reasons for its introduction. We have therefore focused our response on his five main points which, in summary, appear to be that See and Treat:

  1. was instigated by a Trust chief executive in response to deteriorating throughput times in A&E

  2. was initiated as the incorrect response to bed blocking

  3. is a single model, constructed from one example, that has been imposed

  4. was not preceded by published research in a major journal. (This includes a perceived lack of a full understanding of the wider implications, such as impact on training, a potential rise in overall demand, etc)

  5. uses modern operations management thinking that regards patients as “units” and, as such, depersonalises their care.

The author concludes that See and Treat should not be introduced and that, instead, the solutions lie in abandoning Manchester triage category 5; using triage nurses to carry out treatments; and postponing minor A&E “cases” when waiting times become excessive.

We will briefly consider each of the criticisms and evaluate the conclusion drawn.

The first of the five points is factually incorrect. The chief executive, while supportive, had no direct involvement in the introduction of the See and Treat system. It was devised and implemented by the A&E consultant and her clinical team, resulting in a demonstrable improvement in the patients’ waiting times.1 A key feature of See and Treat, as both a concept and a working system, is that it originated, and continues to be developed and tested by clinicians. It is insulting to clinicians to suggest that they might have responded to “being told by others what to do”.

Other emergency departments have introduced systems with senior clinicians assessing and treating patients. There are also examples of clinicians implementing similar principles in America2 and New Zealand.3

Interestingly, about 20% of A&E departments are known to have introduced some form of See and Treat before the Modernisation Agency’s workshops were held. Hence the clinician to clinician networks were already in operation. The role of the NHS Modernisation Agency is to facilitate and support such ventures by enabling clinicians and managers to work together and find solutions that are workable, and beneficial for patients.

The second criticism is that the issues that need to be tackled lie outside of A&E, so why are we concentrating on patients with minor problems? We agree that there are a number of issues that need to be tackled outside of A&E and to this end the Emergency Services Collaborative (ESC) has been established to tackle waits and delays across the whole system of emergency care. See and Treat constitutes only a small part of this work. The organisations involved in the first wave of the ESC are already helping to develop both local and national plans to tackle the complex problems related to patient flows, such as improved bed management.4 This is being done with the whole system in mind. Furthermore, one of the principles behind See and Treat—getting senior expertise at the front end of the patient episode—can be applied to patient flows where the patient has more serious and complex problems. This has been shown to benefit patients.5 Specifically, the impact of the use of a clinical decision unit (Hassan6) and the review of the role of an assessment ward7 are highlighted elsewhere in this edition of EMJ.

See and Treat is therefore only one aspect of the work of the ESC. It can be introduced comparatively quickly and effectively compared with some of the more complex issues that surround bed management. See and Treat is not the solution to all emergency care problems. However, it does provide the opportunity for A&E clinicians to exercise control over the issues that are within their direct domain.

With regard to the third point, guiding principles for the introduction of See and Treat were published in October 2002.8 These principles were collated from all the known existing models of See and Treat. A consensus group, of experienced A&E clinicians, was used to draft the principles, which were further developed and endorsed by the RCN and BAEM. There are several published studies that have described the impact of the application of similar principles in improving patient waiting times without detriment to major injury patients.3,9,10 There are also examples from experiences in UK emergency patients.11,12

The NHS Modernisation Agency has recently completed a series of national workshops in which a variety of different models of See and Treat were presented by clinicians from across the country. The Kettering model was one of a variety of examples presented to show how clinicians had tackled the issues in different ways, and in response to local needs. Hence, we promote the importance of designing a local model to meet local needs.

It is important to emphasise that See and Treat is not regarded to be the domain of A&E consultants alone. The author endorses and speaks positively about “well trained triage nurses who can initiate and complete many treatments”—this is, in fact, a model of See and Treat. Most of the known models use a combination of team members to deliver the most appropriate service to meet patients’ needs. The focus should be on competence and skills and not professional backgrounds or job titles.

The issue of evidence based practice is raised and the author emphasises that there should be published evidence for all of the ways in which we work. However, it is interesting that he uses no references to support his concluding suggestion to “abandon Manchester Triage Scale category 5”. There is an increasing amount of evidence to support the principles of See and Treat. This evidence is derived from empirically tested, clinician led local change. It also draws on historical evidence and data from service provision. Professional consensus has also played a large part in its development. Hence, this triangulated approach is based on pragmatic science. Although not level one evidence, it is a stronger evidence base than can be applied to the current systems. The unanimous experience of those who have tried a model of See and Treat is that it reduces waiting times and improves both patient and staff experience, in ways that the other options do not. Therefore See and Treat has a stronger evidence base than maintaining the status quo, or introducing an untested hybrid model. The lack of high level evidence for See and Treat is not an adequate reason to maintain existing systems that have developed through tradition, with even less evidence base.

The last concern is that applying modern operations management theory to health care is problematic because it depersonalises care. The advantages of this approach are detailed in this edition of EMJ by Walley.13 The question is, whether developing an effective system for all patients makes it worse for individual patients? In reality there is no trade off, because the function of the system is to provide the best care for each and every individual. See and Treat allows personalised, timely and effective care to be delivered for large numbers of patients, who previously were enduring a very poor experience of care. It is a strange and inaccurate observation to imply that this makes care less, rather than more, personal. This is reinforced by a recent poll on emergency departments (MORI 2002, unpublished), which showed that the main concern of patients was waiting time and, in particular, waits for treatment of minor injuries.

We do not believe that triage should be abandoned in itself. However, when See and Treat is functioning optimally, there is no need to prioritise care (triage).

In conclusion, See and Treat is a system of care delivery that has been developed by clinicians and is based on sound operational principles. It is not based on a single prescriptive model. On the contrary, clinicians across the country have adapted it to suit their local services and the needs of their patients. It is delivered through a set of principles that were first developed by clinicians, and then further adapted by BAEM and the RCN. Moreover, John Heyworth president of BAEM, and Lynda Holt Chair of the RCN A&E Nursing Association, wrote the endorsing foreword in the guiding principles.

See and Treat enables us to care effectively for a large group of A&E patients, and is—so far—the best alternative we have. We could however decide to retain the current system, which manifests as full waiting rooms and the ensuing oppression that this induces in our A&E departments. Alternatively we can choose to actively take steps to improve the current system. See and Treat provides us with such an opportunity.


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