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Rationing in the emergency department: the good, the bad, and the unacceptable
  1. E Cross1,
  2. S Goodacre2,
  3. A O’Cathain1,
  4. J Arnold2
  1. 1Health Services Research, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK
  2. 2Accident and Emergency Department, Northern General Hospital, Sheffield, UK
  1. Correspondence to:
 Elizabeth Cross
 Health Services Research, School of Health and Related Research, University of Sheffield, Sheffield, S1 4DA, UK;


Objectives: Waiting times in emergency departments (EDs) are an important government priority. Although substantial efforts are currently being made to reduce waiting times, little attention has been paid to the patients’ view. We used qualitative methods to explore patients’ perspectives on waiting times and other approaches to rationing and prioritisation.

Methods: Face to face, in depth, qualitative interviews (n = 11) explored how patients valued waiting times for non-urgent ED care. The framework approach (identifying a thematic framework through repeated re-reading) was used to analyse transcripts.

Results: Interviewees found some forms of rationing and prioritisation acceptable. They expected rationing by delay, but required explanations or information on the reason for their wait. They valued prioritisation by triage (rationing by selection) and thought that this role could be expanded for the re-direction of non-urgent patients elsewhere (rationing by deflection). Interviewees were mainly unwilling or unable to engage in prioritisation of different types of patients, openly prioritising only those with obvious clinical need, and children. However, some interviewees were willing to ration implicitly, labelling some attenders as inappropriate, such as those causing a nuisance. Others felt it was unacceptable to blame “inappropriate” attenders, as their attendance may relate to lack of information or awareness of service use. Explicit rationing between services was not acceptable, although some believed there were more important priorities for NHS resources than ED waiting times. Interviewees disagreed with the hypothetical notion of paying to be seen more quickly in the ED (rationing by charging).

Conclusions: Interviewees expected to wait and accepted the need for prioritisation, although they were reluctant to engage in judgements regarding prioritisation. They supported the re-direction of patients with certain non-urgent complaints. However, they perceived a need for more explanation and information about their wait, the system, and alternative services.

  • ED, emergency department
  • emergency department
  • patient’s perspective
  • qualitative study
  • rationing

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  • Competing interests: none declared

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