Many people are attending NHS accident and emergency departments unnecessarily because “they don’t know where else to go”, Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg has said.
Mr Clegg’s comments come amid concern about increasing pressures on A&E, with one think-tank warning that patient waiting times have hit a nine-year high and the numbers waiting more than four hours to see a doctor have almost doubled since last year.
And they follow the announcement that one of the main providers of the new NHS 111 phoneline service was pulling out of all of its contracts due to severe financial problems.
Critics have blamed the troubled introduction of the 111 service for encouraging more patients to go straight to A&E.
Mr Clegg admitted that the provision of out-of-hours medical support was “a work in progress”, but said he hoped that the problems with 111 - which replaced NHS Direct in April as provider of advice on urgent but non-emergency medical ailments - would be sorted out “sooner rather than later”.
Health secretary Jeremy Hunt last month announced a fundamental review of emergency care, blaming overcrowding in casualty wards in part on a reduction in out-of-hours services from surgeries since new GP contracts were brought in by the previous Labour administration.
Speaking to BBC Radio 5 Live, Mr Clegg admitted that controlling the numbers attending A&E was “one of the million-dollar questions we’ve got in the NHS”.
The Deputy Prime Minister said: “Why are we having more and more people turning up at A&E when in a sense they often don’t quite need to? I think this is very complex, but my view is that one of the reasons is that too many members of the public aren’t any longer quite sure about what they should do - particularly if they fall ill on weekends, when the doctor’s surgery is shut.
“They are not sure whether they should ring - not least because of course there’s been a lot of publicity about problems with the new 111 system , which I do believe we will be able to straighten out, sooner rather than later I hope. They are not confident about the out-of-hours service that is provided.
“I think the best thing we can do is have simplicity and stability on the out-of-hours provision and stability and quality on the clinical advice that can be provided online and over the telephone.
“At the moment, I think lots of people are going to A&E just because they don’t know where else to go. That is a work in progress but it’s a very important one otherwise people at A&E end up carrying the burden for the rest of the NHS.”
Mr Clegg said that, as a parent, he sympathised with people who want immediate medical advice and treatment for their children even when GP surgeries are closed.
“I’ve got small kids and I’ve been in that situation, particularly if something happens to one of my boys at the weekend, you just want to play safe - of course you do - with your child’s health.”
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