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GP shortages are not causing higher attendance at A&E departments, study finds

Researchers said GPs were being treated like 'scapegoats' for overcrowding in hospitals. Credit: PA

GP shortages are not the cause of increasing attendance at A&E departments, a new study has found, citing long-term health conditions as the main driver.

Published in the British Journal of General Practice, the study refutes claims that a lack of doctors' services were forcing patients to instead seek treatment in hospital.

Researchers at Queen Mary University of London examined the records of some 820,000 patients registered across 136 practices in east London to find the reasons behind rising demand on hospitals.

Social deprivation and suffering from prolonged health problems were the main factors, researchers found.

Social deprivation and suffering from prolonged health problems were the main factors, researchers found. Credit: PA

Patients with four or more long-term conditions had an attendance rate six times higher than those with no such complications. Conditions included asthma, cancer, coronary heart disease, dementia and depression.

"When departments are very busy, with long waits and difficulties finding beds for people needing admission, it is easy to seek scapegoats and suggest that poorly functioning GP services are to blame for the crisis," lead researcher Sally Hull said.

"The same people who attend their GP surgery a lot also attend their emergency department a lot.

"This is largely because they have multiple long term health conditions, both mental and physical, and it is these conditions, along with an ageing population, which are driving the high attendance rates."

Attendance at A&E has more than triple over the past 50 years, the study says, rising up to 373 out every 1,000 of the population in 2015-16.

The study looked at anonymous data from individual patients and linked their GP and A&E records over a two year period, focusing on the Clinical Commissioning Groups of Newham, Tower Hamlets and City and Hackney.

As the study focused on the inner-city, which has pockets of deprivation and a large ethnic minority population, researchers warned it is not representative of the country as a whole.

Attendance rates at emergency departments for patients from the most deprived areas were found to be 52% higher than those from the least deprived.

Patients access to GPs - or lack of it - did not predict how likely they were to end up at A&E instead, the study said.

Dr Hull continued: "People in the most socially deprived areas develop long term health conditions 10 years earlier than those who are least deprived.

"These factors combine to put pressure on emergency departments."