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Will alternative immediate care services reduce demands for non-urgent treatment at accident and emergency?
  1. P Coleman,
  2. R Irons,
  3. J Nicholl
  1. Medical Care Research Unit, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Regent Court, 30 Regent Street, Sheffield S1 4DA, UK
  1. Correspondence to: Ms Coleman (P.Coleman{at}


Objectives—To estimate the potential of general practice, minor injury units, walk in centres and NHS Direct to reduce non-urgent demands on accident and emergency (A&E) departments taking into account the patient's reasons for attending A&E.

Methods—A questionnaire survey and notes review of 267 adults presenting to the A&E department of a large teaching hospital in Sheffield, England, triaged to the two lowest priority treatment streams, was conducted over seven weeks. Using defined criteria, patients were classified by the suitability of the presenting health problem to be managed by alternative immediate care services or only by A&E, and also by the likelihood, in similar circumstances, of patients presenting to other services given their reasons for seeking A&E care.

Results—Full data were obtained for 96% of participants (255 of 267). Using objective criteria, it is estimated that 55% (95% CI 50%, 62%) of the health problems presented by a non-urgent population attending A&E are suitable for treatment in either general practice, or a minor injury unit, or a walk in centre or by self care after advice from NHS Direct. However, in almost one quarter (24%) of low priority patients who self referred, A&E was not the first contact with the health services for the presenting health problem. The reason for attending A&E cited most frequently by the patients was a belief that radiography was necessary. The reason given least often was seeking advice from a nurse practitioner. Taking into account the objective suitability of the health problem to be treated elsewhere, and the reasons for attending A&E given by the patients, it is estimated that, with similar health problems, as few as 7% (95% CI 3%, 10%) of the non-urgent A&E population may be expected to present to providers other than A&E in the future.

Conclusions—The increasing availability of alternative services offering first contact care for non-urgent health problems, is likely to have little impact on the demand for A&E services.

  • immediate care services
  • NHS Direct

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  • Funding: the study was funded by the NHS Executive Trent, but the views expressed in the paper are those of the authors alone and do not necessarily represent the views of the NHS Executive Trent.

  • Conflicts of interest: none.