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The Emergency Department Isn’t Always Your Best Option

The Emergency Department Isn’t Always Your Best Option

25 July, 2016

Latest research shows one in three after-hours visits to the Emergency Department (ED) is for illness or injury that could be treated by a General Practitioner (GP).

A survey commissioned by Brisbane North PHN also found more than 70 per cent of people had never called 13 HEALTH for free health advice, but nearly 40 per cent used ‘Dr Google’ often to diagnosis their symptoms.

Brisbane North PHN Deputy Chair and local GP Dr Anita Green and said she was surprised to learn how many people were still going to the ED for minor aliments like ankle sprains and viral infections.

“Our findings also showed that half of non-urgent patients (categories four and five) attending an ED after hours were under the age of 30, which includes babies and young children,” Dr Green said.

“What this suggests is many parents and young adults are unaware of what after-hours services are available to them.

“The Emergency Department isn’t always your best option for after-hours care.

“Patients seeking urgent medical care for minor ailments will find it is easier and usually a lot quicker to call an after-hours GP, instead of waiting for hours at busy hospitals,” she said.

In late June 2016, Brisbane North PHN launched a campaign off the back of these results to improve awareness of after-hours medical care alternatives.

Dr Green said 300 patients were surveyed and two years of hospital data examined to gain a thorough understanding of how and why people are accessing after-hours healthcare.

“Our survey revealed that three quarters of patients had never accessed an after-hours GP service,” Dr Green said.

“Data also showed almost no one had used the Health Direct symptom-checker, which provides free and reliable medical information online.

“Dr Google often gets it wrong and can cause unnecessary worry. Our website gives people several options for medical help and advice that may be better than a trip to the ED,” she said.

The website uses a colour-coded scale of emergency alternatives:

  • BLUE: Getting worried? Get free customised medical information online using Health Direct symptom-checker.
  • GREY: Need to talk now. Call 13 HEALTH to get medical advice from a registered nurse 24/7.
  • AMBER: Need to see a doctor. Call your GP or an after-hours GP service to see a doctor 24/7.
  • RED: It’s an emergency. Serious illness? Accident? Suspected heart attack or stroke? Go to a hospital ED or call 000 for an ambulance.

“This campaign reinforces the same messages that doctors, nurses and paramedics have been saying for quite some time,” Dr Green said.

“The hospital ED is for patients needing life-saving treatment, so please avoid it if your condition could be better managed by a GP,” she said.

Dr Colin Myers, Executive Director of Critical Care at Australia’s largest hospital and healthcare service, said EDs are for emergencies and in many cases patients who are seeking treatment for minor ailments will wait.

“Unless it is an emergency, patients should consider using the alternatives available to them highlighted in this campaign as our sickest patients will always be seen first,” Dr Myers said.

Director of Clinical Quality and Patient Safety, Queensland Ambulance Service Tony Hucker said calling an ambulance for illnesses treatable by a GP could divert valuable resources away from more critical patients.

“If an ambulance is being used to transport a patient to hospital that is not experiencing a life-threatening condition, those paramedics are unable respond to other more urgent emergencies,” Mr Hucker said.

“Before calling Triple Zero (000), please think about whether it is an emergency situation or if your symptoms can be treated by your GP,” he said.

AMA Queensland President Dr Chris Zappala said it was important to only trust evidence-based sources when searching for medical information online.

“Digging around the internet can be overwhelming at the best of times. If you can’t get in touch with your regular GP, turning to Dr Google is not the answer,” Dr Zappala said.

“In non-urgent situations, patients have several options for accessing timely and qualified health advice, including using the Health Direct symptom-checker or calling 13HEALTH.

"Dialling Triple Zero or visiting the ED is still your best option in a medical emergency," he said.

The campaign has the support of the AMA Queensland, the Queensland Ambulance Service, and the Metro North Hospital and Health Service.

To visit the campaign website, go to

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