Introduction The 4 h emergency standard for English acute trusts was introduced in 2003 and became full established by 2008 at 98% for all Emergency Department (ED) patients to be seen and discharged. This study examined the impact of the target for older patients attending departments.
Methods Routine patient level data was received from 15 English EDs representing 774 095 individual patient attendances during May and June for 2003 to 2006. The data were used to determine the distribution of the total time spent in the EDs. Attendances were compared for older patients (65 years and above) with younger age groups.
Results A total of 145 596 attendances were for patients aged 65+ years (18.9%). Across each year analysed, these older patients have a significantly longer median total time in the ED than those younger than 65 years (162 min vs 103 min, p<0.001). In addition, older patients are significantly more likely to leave the emergency department in the last 20 min prior to 4 h (12.4% vs 5.2% in those <65 years, p<0.001). This proportion is growing year on year in both the admitted and discharged categories of patients. Finally, older patients are significantly more likely to breach the 4-h than their younger counterparts (16.6% vs 6.3%, p<0.001).
Conclusions There are some unintended consequences of introducing the 4 h target in UK emergency departments. While the target has reduced overall time in departments, the older patient appears to be disadvantaged relative to younger patients. Older patients are more likely to be ‘rushed through’ to other unmonitored areas of the hospital just prior to the target or to breach the target altogether. This finding calls in to question the benefits that the target is conveying for individual patients, and especially the most vulnerable in society.
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