Comment: Doctors must find way to divert patients

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No-one who read today’s story about young Holly Harrison could fail to be moved by the ordeal she and her family are going through.

Her plight would be much worse, of course, if it were not for the expertise of the staff at the Sick Kids. Being taken to the hospital’s emergency department saved her life.

One of the big challenges facing the NHS right now is ensuring its emergency departments are not overwhelmed by the demands put upon them.

It is only by managing these pressures that the health service can be sure that these highly skilled medics are there when we most need them.

It is clear that they have a huge mountain to climb to achieve that. NHS research suggests that more than one in eight patients presenting themselves at emergency departments don’t need to be there.

That is a huge problem. Imagine a business that had 40,000 customers regularly turning up at the wrong place. They would be in serious trouble. If that many people turned up each year in the fruit and veg aisle at Asda asking for kids’ clothes, no-one would have time to stock the shelves.

Yet that is what NHS Lothian faces at its various emergency treatment units, at the ERI, St John’s, the Western General and the Sick Kids.

Of course, doctors would never discourage worried parents from taking their children to the Sick Kids – but they need to find a way of diverting more adults away from these overpressed facilities.

They need to find new ways of getting across the message that the emergency department is not the place to go to for a second opinion or cuts that can be patched up with a simple plaster. If that means sending some people who really should not be in hospital home to wait until their GP surgery opens then so be it.

A big part of the problem remains the confusion that many of us have about where we are supposed to go for treatment when our GP is shut. Now that we cannot get hold of our family doctor out of hours we wonder whether we should be calling NHS 24 or heading to one of the out of hours clinics at the local hospital.

The advice is to call NHS 24, which can arrange for a doctor to call or for an urgent clinic appointment, and save the emergency departments only for genuine emergencies.