There is a phrase which goes around the wards and departments of many NHS hospitals:
This is most often used when talking about patients who pitch up to A+E with conditions which could usually be managed elsewhere. These are the patients who are thought to cost the NHS a lot of money and are the target of various schemes to stream them to more appropriate settings.
So what are these ‘inappropriate attendances’?
I am very lucky to have benefited from a great education, am lucky enough to work in a pretty comprehensive health service, and because of my day job, have become pretty adept at navigating it, and getting help where and when I need it.
However, imagine if you haven’t had that benefit, and don’t know what a drop-in centre staffed by nurse practitioners can offer, or that you can get good advice over the phone from a GP out of hours, or that a pharmacist at the local chemists could deal with your ailment? Well, what would you do then?
The decisions patients make about where to go for help are not simply random and unthinking, but they are made when patients are distressed, and searching for answers, and quickly at that.
The NHS is very good at taking a problem and designing a solution to it which works perfectly in a committee room, on paper and in a consultation document. However, as Helmuth von Moltke the Elder once said, “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. Similarly, no treatment pathway, referral criteria, single point of access or similar will survive in its original form, and the consequences are very often unintended rather than those set out by their architects.
Once we have set out a plan though, we often don’t recognise that patients (including ourselves) will follow the path of least resistance, and seek help where they will get it. So if one sets up a system where the most efficient way to get a diagnosis for a funny rash “which isn’t a huge problem, but I don’t really want to take a day off work for it” is to go to A+E, then go to A+E the patients will.
We must recall also that “every system is designed perfectly to achieve the results it yields” (Paul Batalden) In this case, we must recognise that we cannot force people to make choices which fit with our ideal, but instead that they will make choices which seem to them to make the most sense, and offer them the help the want as quickly as possible.
To change the way in which patients behave we must either match their behaviour (put urgent care centres staffed by GPs in A+E departments and hive off those we think are “inappropriate for A+E” to the GPs next door, or we must improve the alternative offer – and improve community services, awareness of community services such that they can compete with the A+E service to offer reassurance, diagnosis and therapy for those patients who seek it outwith office hours – however the promise of swift treatment and diagnosis at a hospital may prove too much – and the draw of A+E too strong
There are positive points on both sides of the fence on this one, but one thing is clear – there really are very few cases where an attendance at A+E is “inappropriate”:
It may be that the patient didn’t want to wait and was playing the system – but then the system may be inappropriate, or it might just be that the patient was anxious, tired, scared and wanted some help. Equally, the patient might be lacking the skills and knowledge to manage and requires some additional information on how to navigate the complex health economies we have generated.
And I seem to remember that that falls fairly squarely into the lap of the caring profession of which I am proud to be a member. It does not become us to castigate our patients for their lack of understanding or anxiety.