Majority of people think A&E services are overused but half think it is hard to get a GP appointment

  • Research shows that the majority of the British population are satisfied with A&E services, but there are differences in attitudes and understanding between social groups when it comes accessing health services
  • A majority of 86 per cent of people think A&E is overused, but 51 per cent think it is too difficult to get a GP appointment
  • The findings will help the government to better understand and support those least confident in using health services and shape policy moving forward

accident and emergency building sign

The first ever large-scale research into attitudes towards emergency care from the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey reveals significant differences in perspectives by a range of socio-demographic factors, such as area deprivation, age, young children in the household and gender.

The study, carried out by the National Centre for Social Research, commissioned by the University of Sheffield and funded by the National Institute for Health Research shows that:

  • People living in deprived areas are more likely to prefer Accident and Emergency departments (A&Es) over their General Practitioner (GP) to get tests done quickly, find it more difficult to get an appointment with their GP and think A&E doctors are more knowledgeable than GPs.
  • Parents with children under five are most likely to have used an A&E in the last year, to think it is hard to get an appointment with their GP, are less likely to trust their GP but are also more likely to use the internet to try to decide what the problem might be.
  • Men are less knowledgeable about how to contact a GP out of office hours and less likely to use the internet to research a health problem.

Alicia O’Cathain, Director of the Medical Care Research Unit at the University of Sheffield’s School of Health and Related Research has been working with the NIHR to understand the demands for emergency and urgent care in the NHS. Commenting on the research, she said: “Today’s findings illustrate that while the majority of the British population are satisfied with A&E services, there are marked differences in attitudes and understanding between different social groups when it comes to views on access and confidence in A&Es and GPs. This may contribute to the over-use of critical emergency care functions. It’s clear that there are lessons in these findings which will help the government to better understand and support those least confident in using health services and shape policy moving forward.”

Use of services

The population is fairly united in the belief that A&Es are overused; a clear majority (86 per cent) think that too many people unnecessarily use A&E services. This increases to 94 per cent for people aged 65 to 74 years old and drops to 79 per cent for those aged 18 to 24 years. When asked whether they had actually accessed A&E services in the previous 12 months for themselves or others, 32 per cent of the public and more than half of parents with a child under five (54 per cent) report they have done so at least once. In contrast, 29 per cent of those without young children in the household say they have visited A&Es in the same period.

GP access and service preferences

Around half (51 per cent) the population agrees that it is hard to get an appointment with a GP. Those with children under five (65 per cent) and those living in the most deprived areas (59 per cent) are most likely to agree. While over one third (36 per cent) of the public report that they prefer NHS services where they do not need to make an appointment, those living in the most deprived areas (48 per cent) and those with no educational qualifications (48 per cent) are most inclined to say so. Only 27 per cent of people living in the least deprived areas and 30 per cent of graduates express this sentiment.

Seventeen per cent of all people surveyed prefer A&Es to GPs because they can get tests done quickly. The figure rises to 29 per cent when looking at people in the most deprived areas. This view is held by just 11 per cent of people who live in the least deprived areas. By the same token, those with no qualifications are twice as likely (26 per cent) as degree holders to prefer A&Es to GPs to get tests done quickly (13 per cent).

Perception of GPs versus A&E doctors

Sixty five per cent of the total population have confidence in GPs, while 11 per cent state they do not have much confidence. This compares to 18 per cent of those living in the most deprived areas, 16 per cent of people with no qualifications and 20 per cent of parents with a child aged under five who do not have much confidence. In contrast, 10 per cent of those without young children and eight per cent of degree holders and eight per cent of those living in the least deprived areas feel the same.

Overall, just 19 per cent of Britons agree that doctors at A&Es are more knowledgeable than GPs. However, this jumps to a third for those without any qualifications (32 per cent compared with 14 per cent of graduates) and 28 per cent of those in the most deprived areas (compared with 15 per cent living in the least deprived areas).

Use of digital resources

Fifty eight per cent of people with internet access say they would look online to help understand a health problem, while 47 per cent would use the internet to decide what to do about it. Nevertheless, substantial gaps between demographic groups exist. Young people aged 18 to 24 are twice as likely (62 per cent) to research health problems online than those aged 75 and over (30 per cent). Those without children under five (56 per cent compared with 7 per cent of those with young children) and people with no qualifications (42 per cent compared with 71 per cent of graduates) and men (54 per cent compared with 62 per cent of women) are less likely to turn to the internet for health advice.

Awareness of NHS Services and managing wellbeing

When it comes to awareness and confidence to access the right NHS services, most people (90 per cent) report being confident that they know when to see a doctor regarding a health problem. Men (76 per cent compared with 85 per cent of women) and young people (64 per cent compared with 79 per cent of those 75 and over) emerged as the groups least confident in knowing how to contact a GP out of hours. And while 85 per cent of people say they could rely on family and friends to care for them in the case of a non-life-threatening health problem, this drops to 76 per cent for those in the most deprived areas and rises to 91 per cent for those living in the least deprived areas.

The University of Sheffield School of Health and Related Research

Additional information

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