During your Medicine Interviews, you may be asked questions about Accident & Emergency services as a way of probing how much you understand about this hot topic – and Medicine in general. This guide to an A&E in crisis outlines the key talking points that you need to be aware of, with some example questions you can review.

What is A&E?

There are three main types of A&E departments in England:

  • Type 1 departments are what most people may think of as an A&E service: major emergency consultant-led departments providing a 24-hour service. These departments account for most attendances (63% in 2018/19).
  • Type 2 departments are dedicated for specific specialities (e.g. treating only eye conditions or dental issues)
  • Type 3 departments treat minor injuries and illnesses and include walk-in centres or minor injury units.

The most prominent measure of A&E performance in England is the four-hour standard.


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What has happened to A&E waiting times?

Most A&E departments across England and Wales have struggled to achieve the four-hour standard, as the NHS has experienced a sustained period of financial austerity and staffing pressures.

The NHS has not met the four-hour standard at a national level in any year since 2013/14, and the standard has been missed in every month since July 2015 as of August 2020.

Read more about A&E waiting times here.

Why are patients waiting longer?

There are a few key reasons why A&E patients are waiting longer”

  • Rising A&E attendances. Before the coronavirus pandemic, an increasing number of people were attending A&E. On average, in 2018-19, 67,991 people attended A&E each day in England; this is a 17% increase on the 2010-11 numbers. Get key A&E patient statistics.
  • Fewer hospital beds. ‘Exit block’ occurs when there is a delay in admitting patients to the ward from A&E due to a lack of beds. The problem of exit blocking leads to delays in diagnosis and treatment, which can in turn cause harm to patients. See the latest analysis on hospital bed numbers.
  • Age of patients. An ageing population is likely to also contribute to increased pressure on A&E, as three-quarters of 75-year olds have more than one long term condition, increasing to 82% of 85-year olds. Read the latest annual report from the NHS that breaks down A&E attendance.
  • Unnecessary A&E attendances. Another issue is that many people may attend A&E unnecessarily because they don’t know where to go for treatment, or can’t get an appointment with their GP. “Some estimates suggest that between 1.5 and 3 million people who come to A&E each year could have their needs addressed in other parts of the urgent care system” (source).
  • Delayed discharges. Sometimes it can be difficult to discharge patients from hospital as they may need additional home support or wait for a nursing home placement. A patient who no longer has a medical condition requiring hospital treatment but who cannot be discharged from hospital is described as a delayed discharge or “bed blocking”, which in turn may cause a backlog to A&E due to bed shortages. This is a particular concern with the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • Staffing shortages. Staffing issues in A&E departments often lead to an increased workload for the remaining workers, a greater number of sick days and loss of workers due to transfers or resignations. The burnout rate gets progressively worse for the longest-serving staff, and the cycle can drag down the efficiency of whole departments. Coronavirus has made this issue even more acute.

Time To Scrap The Four-Hour Target?

Although the four-hour target is an incredibly useful barometer for the overall performance of the NHS and social care system, it’s important not to place too much emphasis on it as it does not provide a full picture of how A&Es are performing. For example, two departments could see the same proportion of patients within four hours with very different average waiting times. Moreover, the safety and quality of care, in addition to patient experience, are just as important as how quickly care is provided.

Currently, other measures are also used alongside the four-hour target to gauge the quality of service provided in A&E, such as:

  • The number of re-attendances within seven days of their first attendance
  • The waiting time to see a clinician
  • The Care Quality Commission (CQC) rating of core hospital services
  • Patient satisfaction surveys, such as the 2018 national survey of patients who have used urgent and emergency care

In 2018, NHS England began to review the four-hour A&E standard and whether they should be updated. The review was published in March 2019, suggesting the current four-hour A&E target should be replaced with several new measures instead. 14 hospital trusts were selected to pilot a new way of measuring performance. The recommendations were due to be published spring 2020, but this has been delayed because of the pandemic.

Earlier this year, Health Secretary Matt Hancock suggested the four-hour target could be scrapped. This has been fiercely opposed.

A&E Interview Questions

Some questions you could be asked during your interview about A&E and hospitals include:

  • Why do you think A&E waiting times have increased?
  • Can you think of any strategies for reducing the strain on A&E departments?
  • What are the implications of setting targets for waiting times?
  • Should Doctors and Nurses be allowed to refuse to work in A&E to protect themselves against COVID-19?

Check our Interview Question Bank for more questions – and a guide to answering questions just like this.

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