Closure of A&E Units Announced in the UK
Throughout the UK, A&E units have experienced an increase in the number of patients served in any given month, rising as high as 1,942,000 attendances in April 2017. The number indicates a 4% rise over the month prior, with type 1 A&E departments recognising a 3.3% increase. Over the course of the last year, patients have been admitted for urgent emergency care 2.9% more than in 2016, and the numbers are expected to grow in the years to come. While the NHS has regularly reports these statistics as part of its commitment to providing transparency in the health system so many residents rely on, a recent announcement has some concerned about the future of A&E units and the healthcare patients receive throughout the country.
Out of 175 existing emergency unites, two dozen are slated for closure or downgrade in the upcoming months. The announcement is part of a five-year project intended to reduce the annual spending on NHS services through a series of sustainability and transformation plans, or STPs. For each of the regions with an A&E unit, a reorganisation of services is set to take place that is designed to quell individuals’ reliance on hospitals and instead focus on expanding primary care staffed by GPs and other specialists. The STPs also present details on the increased use of technology and medical care teams to deliver services at patients’ home, ultimately lowering the cost of maintaining A&E units throughout the UK. While the ideal of reigning in the NHS budget is admirable, there are some experts who argue the closure or restructure of current A&E departments may leave a gap in healthcare that proves detrimental to patient well-being.
The Impact on Patients
A&E units throughout the NHS have faced scrutiny for years, given their stark performance numbers against defined targets. For instance, over the last 13 years, wait times for patients has been a sore subject not only for the individuals seeking care, but for the providers who provide medical attention and patients advocate groups alike. A four-hour standard has been in place for some time, with the aim to treat patients within this timeframe at least 95% of the time. Instead, only four out of 139 hospitals with type 1 A&E departments have hit that mark, and researchers predict that the upcoming quarter will produce a lower outcome across the board. There are several factors playing a role in A&E units that ultimately affect the level of quality care patients receive during their visit.
Staff shortages have plagued the NHS for some time, but in recent years, recruitment of highly trained and qualified GPs has increased notably in most regions. The problem, some note, is retention as working hours are extended and both doctors and nurses are expected to fulfill a seven-day weekly schedule to meet patient demand. Adding to the turmoil throughout A&E units is the growing number of patients seeking care. As the population ages, faster than any other time in history, A&E units are being put to the test and stretched to their limits more often than not. These factors have the potential to put undue strain on departments and hospitals, and that strain may only increase if regional A&E units are downgraded or closed altogether.
A solicitor from a law firm that works with negligence cases in A&E units explains that the number of individuals needing to be admitted from an A&E department to a hospital bed has increased over time, and this poses a problem in hospitals when bed-occupancy rates are already at record rates. Instead of a quick and seamless transfer, patients are waiting in A&E units more than ever, creating a situation where overcrowding and staff shortages run rampant. With the projected closure and downgrading of 24 A&E units in the upcoming months, patients may not receive the timely care they need to improve their overall health and return to the quality of life they want or need.
Fixing the problems within the NHS and specifically in A&E units throughout the country requires more than a single solution. The government has developed the STPs in conjunction with the five-year forward plan to create a simpler, less complex health system for patients in the UK to use as they need. However, drastic closures of A&E units may not be the best way to accomplish this major task, and patients may ultimately end up traveling further and waiting longer to receive the care they need. Time will tell if these closures and consolidations work to the benefit of the patients or simply the budget of the NHS.