Accident and emergency units, also known as A&E units, are a critical component of the UK’s healthcare system. Through the three distinct departments types 1, 2, and 3, patients are seen by medical professionals for a wide range of ailments. In type 1 A&E units, major health conditions are diagnosed and treated and full emergency consultant services are made available to the public on a 24-hour basis each day. Type 2 units offer specialty services, including ophthalmology and dentistry, and type 3 units are reserved for walk-in patients seeking assistance with minor illnesses or injuries that do not require urgent care. The combination of these A&E units gives patients visiting the NHS a comprehensive range of services, but in recent months, some A&E units will experience a drastic shift.
As part of the five-year plan to reduce cost across the entirety of the NHS, 24 A&E units will close their doors or be downgraded to a lower level unit. The move is meant to restructure the emergency care departments that work as the front lines of the healthcare system, ultimately lowering the cost of maintaining the current 175 units available throughout the UK. The NHS has been working diligently to refocus its energy to streamline the process of receiving healthcare for the millions of patients who rely on the system, creating a simpler way to access the doctors and specialists they need to improve their quality of life. Transitioning away from A&E units is based on a strategic plan to offer more technology-based services that can be provided in the privacy and comfort of a patient’s home, but some are concerned that the closure of so many A&E units may make receiving quality care a challenge for some patients in need.
The Impact on UK Patients
One of the most pressing concerns for the UK government in the last decade has been plugging the gaping hole in spending through the NHS, including the system’s A&E units in several regions. The hope has been to lower the cost of providing care while remaining a quality provider of medical services for both emergency and non-emergency needs, and the closure of A&E units is meant to positively impact the budget. However, many patient advocates, providers, and UK residents are growing concerned over the already pressured A&E departments and how the reduction in available facilities will prove beneficial in the long run. Over the last decade, patients have experienced growing wait times, far above the four-hour standard the NHS targets. Instead of receiving the care they need in a timely manner, more than 5% of individuals are forced to wait an extended period of time. This has the potential to expedite health issues to the point where simple treatment is no longer a viable solution.
Wait times have been increasing for several years because the NHS has faced a shortage in staffing along with a growing patient population. While programs have been implemented to encourage more qualified GPs, nurses, and medical staff to join the ranks of NHS employees in A&E departments, retention of these workers has been lackluster. Combined with an aging population placing greater demands on A&E units across the region, the NHS has had little recourse in improving the healthcare experience of patients to any noticeable degree. The closure of 24 A&E units in the upcoming months does not bode well for future improvement, especially in the case of extended wait times.
A solicitor from a medical negligence firm dealing with A&E unit claims on a regular basis cites another glaring issues with reducing the available number of type 1 A&E units throughout the country. Bed-occupancy rates are at an all-time high, but the number of patients requiring admission to a hospital bed has increased steadily over time. If patients face extended wait times with their initial encounter with an A&E unit, and subsequently have to wait for bed admission, the state of their health could be severely impacted. These inevitable complications coupled with fewer A&E units available to patients who need immediate medical attention could be disastrous.
There is no single solution to the NHS’s complex problems of rising healthcare costs and growing patient population, and the closure or downgrade of certain A&E units alone will not effectively reduce the budget while also improving the patient experience across the board. The hope of a simpler, more accessible healthcare system for UK patients is only feasible in today’s environment when multiple strategies are put in place – not only to lower the cost of care but to also increase the quality for patients in need.