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Quarter of A&E visits for eye problems ‘not emergencies’

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One in four patients who seek emergency care for eye problems have mild conditions that would be better dealt with elsewhere, according to a large US study.

The study, published in the journal Ophthalmology, looked at nearly 377,000 eye-related emergency care visits by adults over a 14-year period.

“The emergency room is the right choice for some patients, but not the best place for many others”

Brian Stagg

Nearly 86,500 of those visits were for three conditions that do not need emergency treatment – namely conjunctivitis (pinkeye), blepharitis (swollen eyelids) and chalazion (eyelid bumps).

Only about 25,300 were for clear eye emergencies, said the researchers from the University of Michigan, while the rest were somewhere in the middle.

They found younger people, men, people from black minority ethnic backgrounds, and those with lower incomes or dementia were more likely to seek treatment for non-emergency eye problems.

Patients who had more contact than average with accident and emergency teams – so-called “frequent flyers” – were also more likely to attend for non-emergency eye conditions, said the researchers.

In contrast, the study found patients who had been seeing an eye specialist on a regular basis before their eye-related emergency visit were much less likely to seek care for a non-urgent eye problem.

Lead study author Dr Brian Stagg, from the University of Michigan, said: “Depending on the eye condition, the emergency room is the right choice for some patients, but not the best place for many others.”

University of Michigan

Quarter of A&E visits for eye problems ‘not emergencies’

Brian Stagg

He said he hoped the findings could be used to inform efforts to curb emergency care visits for issues that did not need that level of care.

In particular, he recommended that eye-care professionals and emergency providers “work together to help people get the care they need for emerging eye issues, in the right setting”.

Dr Stagg noted that the lack of eye specialists in low-income areas, and the inability of younger and lower-income people to take time off from work for an eye appointment, could lead them to seek care in an emergency department at night or on weekends.

He suggested more telemedicine appointments, where eye specialists could examine patients remotely or get images sent to them digitally, could help, as might more after-hours appointments in primary care.

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