The Accident And Emergency Debate

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The College of Emergency Medicine has recommended that 30% of the patients turning up to dangerously overstretched Accident and Emergency units nationwide don’t really need to be there – they should be assessed by a GP.

This week, we’ve had an excellent example of this dysfunctional system in action.

On Sunday, which happened to be two days before his Finals, our student son woke up with a pounding headache and a big swelling on his face. He rang the helpline, and was sent to A&E, where he waited for nearly six hours, feeling terrible and, officially at least, out of phone contact.

The first we heard that something was awry was when our daughter phoned us, telling us she’d read on Facebook that Tom was in the A&E department. Unable to get any clear details, and aware of the proximity of his Finals, I decided to drive over 200 miles and see for myself.

Just north of Birmingham,  my phone beeped. It was Tom. He’d been put on antibiotics for “a blocked salivary gland.” He had a terrible headache, he just wanted to go to bed and be left alone, and I needn’t bother coming, he said. Since the hotel room was booked and non-refundable, I carried on.

Next morning he felt a lot worse. He went to the University Medical Centre, worried that he might need some paperwork in case he underperformed in his exams. They diagnosed mumps and put him in isolation.

It’s unlikely that anything could have saved his Finals at this stage. But what worries me is that he waited hours in a crowded hospital, full of vulnerable people, and then was misdiagnosed. Apparently it never occurred to anyone, regardless of the fact that a mumps outbreak was raging on the local university campus, and he presented with textbook symptoms, that this could be his problem.

A GP in the A&E department could have made all the difference. They might have picked up, for example, that although our son’s been fully vaccinated, he’s also been on an immunosuppressant for months to control his eczema and allergy problems. Instead, he’s ended up with an unnecessary course of antibiotics, lost a precious 24 hours which could have been spent alterting the University to the fact that he’d need invigilation to take his Finals papers in isolation, and inadvertently put numerous people at risk of contagion.

It is all so preventable. We just need the facilities for people who inconveniently get sick out of office hours to see a GP. Health care professionals have been saying this for months, so isn’t it time someone listened to them?

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