- Myth one: A&E waiting times have risen dramatically
- Myth two: The number of people going to A&E is increasing
- Myth three: Increases in A&E attendances are mainly a result of reduced access to GPs
- Myth four: A&E pressures are due to an inadequate number/mix of staff
- Myth five: Delays discharging patients from hospital are increasing because of problems with social care
Myth one: A&E waiting times have risen dramatically
It is true that, in recent years, the proportion of patients waiting longer than four hours to be treated, admitted or discharged has increased.
As Figure 1, below, shows, the proportion of patients waiting longer than four hours in A&E hovered around the old 2 per cent target for a number of years. It then increased, following the coalition government's decision to relax the target to 5 per cent in 2010. With the exception of the final quarter of 2013/14, when the 5 per cent target was breached, performance has generally remained within the target range. However, the proportion of patients waiting longer than four hours has been rising and the target has only just been met in recent quarters.
Figure 1: Percentage of patients waiting more than four hours in A&E from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge
Data source: NHS England, Weekly A&E SitReps 2013-14
The national figures mask significant variations in performance. Around a quarter of all A&E units have missed the 5 per cent target in recent quarters (see Figure 2, below). Performance tends to be much stronger among walk-in centres and minor injuries units, which brings up the national average. By July 2014, major A&E units had missed the target for 52 consecutive weeks.
Figure 2: Percentage of providers reporting more than 5 per cent of patients waiting longer than four hours in A&E departments from arrival to admission, transfer or discharge
Data source: NHS England, Weekly A&E SitReps 2013-14
For many years, the number of people attending A&E remained essentially unchanged at around 14 million a year. In 2003/4, the number of attendances jumped – by nearly 18 per cent – to 16.5 million. This reflects the introduction around this time of walk-in centres and minor injuries units, which aimed to divert less serious cases away from major A&E units.
At the same time, the way the statistics were collected changed to record attendances separately for type 1 (major A&E units), type 2 (single specialty units) and type 3 units (walk-in centres and minor injuries units). So, much of the increase in 2003/4 was due to previously unrecorded attendances being collected and additional – but less serious – work being carried out in new types of units.
Since then, the overall number of attendances has increased significantly to 21.7 million in 2013/14, a rise of more than 30 per cent over the decade. However, most of this growth has been in attendances at type 2 and type 3 units, indicating a degree of supply-induced demand as these new routes into emergency care have opened up.
The number of attendances at type 1 units has increased at a much lower rate, from 12.6 million in 2003/4 to 14.2 million in 2013/14. While this is an increase of only 12 per cent, it is still a significant number of attendances to absorb for a system operating close to capacity. (See Figure 3)
Figure 3: Annual attendances at English A&E units: 1987/8 to 2013/14
Data source: Department of Health, ‘Total time spent in accident and emergency (pre-2011/12 Q2)’ and NHS England, ‘A&E waiting times and activity’ (current)
It has been said that more patients are attending A&E because they are unable to get appointments with their GP, while the Secretary of State for Health, Jeremy Hunt, suggested that changes to the GP contract in 2004 led to increases in A&E attendance by removing responsibility for out-of-hours care from GPs.
Nearly 40 per cent of patients who attend A&E are discharged without requiring treatment. This does not mean that all these patients are attending A&E unnecessarily or could be cared for elsewhere. Estimates vary but a survey of 3,000 patients in 12 A&E units carried out for the College of Emergency Medicine found that 15 per cent could have been treated in the community; again this is not to say that they all went to A&E 'inappropriately'. Research has shown that attendances are linked to the accessibility of, and patient satisfaction with, local GP services. However, it is difficult to accurately pin down how many people go to A&E to because they can't get get an appointment with their GP. Recent research by a team at Imperial College London estimated this to be as many as 5.7 million A&E attendances in 2012/13 (almost a quarter of unplanned attendances), although they described this as a 'snapshot of the situation' and called for further research to improve understanding in this area. There has not been any research suggesting this has changed over time.
There is no evidence that changes to the arrangements for providing out-of-hours services have led to an increase in A&E attendances. As Figure 4 shows, most people go to A&E during working hours and these hourly patterns in attendances have remained largely unchanged in recent years. The difference in attendance levels between type 1 and type 3 units during the night is explained by the latter not generally being open 24 hours a day.
Figure 4: Percentage of A&E attendances by hour of day and department type, 2012/13
Staffing issues are a significant factor in pressures on A&E departments. However, the real issue is not just the total number of staff, but having the right combination of staff available, particularly consultants. A&E departments are struggling to recruit to these posts and often end up relying on locums and more junior staff to provide cover.
The College of Emergency Medicine reports that, for the past three years, only 50 per cent of higher specialist emergency medicine training posts have been filled, resulting in a 'lost cohort' of more than 200 potential consultants. It argues that trainees are opting out of emergency medicine due to the 'intensity of work, unsociable hours and working conditions'. This adds to the pressures on those in post, creating a vicious circle of overwork and low morale, which exacerbates recruitment difficulties.
The College of Emergency Medicine recommends a minimum number of ten full-time equivalent consultants for every emergency department, to ensure a consultant presence for up to 16 hours a day. Currently, departments are able to cover 12 hours a day for 77 per cent of the time on weekdays, and for 30 per cent of the time at weekends. (See Figure 5)
Figure 5: Current rates of 12-hour consultant presence in emergency departments, by weekday/weekend
Data source: House of Commons Health Committee, Urgent and emergency services: second report of session 2013-14
Myth five: Delays discharging patients from hospital are increasing because of problems with social care
Delays in discharging patients prevent beds being freed up for patients who need to be admitted to hospital, adding to pressures on emergency departments. It is often said that these delays are increasing as a result of problems in social care – for example, in arranging places in residential care or for services to be provided in people's homes. The statistics do not support this.
The number of delayed discharges had increased by about 3 per cent at the beginning of 2014/15 compared to 2013/14, but has remained relatively stable for a number of years. Closer analysis of the reasons for these delays suggests that the proportion of delayed discharges attributable to the NHS (caused, for example, by delays in accessing community or mental health services) has risen from around 63 per cent in 2010/11 to almost 80 per cent in 2014/15, while the proportion attributable to social care has fallen from 35 per cent to around 28 per cent of the total number of delayed days (see Figure 6).
This suggests that delays in arranging social care services are not a growing problem. However, anecdotal evidence indicates that delayed discharges are a significant concern for many NHS organisations, so it may be that the official statistics do not tell the full story.