x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Patients with minor illnesses clog hospital emergency units across UAE

Too many emergency room visits are not urgent, doctors say, stressing resources.

Hospital emergency units are being clogged up with people suffering minor ailments.
Hospital emergency units are being clogged up with people suffering minor ailments.

ABU DHABI // Hospital emergency units are being clogged up with people suffering minor ailments.

At least a third are non-emergency cases such as colds, mild gastroenteritis and small cuts, or requests for a repeat prescription, all of which should be dealt with at primary healthcare centres.

The result is increased waiting times at emergency units, greater pressure on resources and a reduction in the availability of doctors.

"They come in for prescription refills, for chronic disease follow-ups - for simple diseases that can be managed in primary healthcare centres. They even come in when they have a cold, or the flu," said Dr Jihad Awad, head of emergency at Mafraq Hospital in Abu Dhabi, where the emergency department deals with about 10,000 patients a month.

Doctors have urged more education to advise patients where to seek the correct medical help.

"It is a very important thing, to change the culture - especially through the Ministry of Health hospitals," said Dr Safia Al Khaja, consultant paediatrician and medical director at Al Qassimi Hospital in Sharjah.

Until recently, only about 20 per cent of the 400 or so patients a day at the hospital's ER department were admitted. "That means we were seeing out of the 380 that maybe 320 were not emergency cases," Dr Al Khaja said.

Since the introduction of a new triage system, daily admissions have dropped by about 20 per cent in the past six months.

"This year, this season, the maximum we are seeing is between 300 and 320 daily," Dr Al Khaja said. "But still, we have the same problem. Patients still come but the advantage we have now is that we are giving them the choice - we tell them that they have to wait, after we take their vitals and history, for three hours. That, or they have the choice to go to the primary healthcare clinic."

A 2010 study by Saqr Hospital in RAK, released last year, showed that 73 per cent of emergency room admissions were not emergencies. Last year's records are still being analysed.

At Sheikh Khalifa Hospital in Ajman the figure is between 30 and 40 per cent.

The problem is widespread, said Dr Glyn Barnett, acting chair of the ER department at Sheikh Khalifa Medical City, the busiest hospital in the capital.

Of about 300 admissions a day, roughly a quarter arrive with minor problems.

An international guide, the Emergency Severity Index, breaks down emergency cases into five different levels, one being the most urgent and five the least. Most ER cases fall into level one, then two or three, Dr Barnett said.

While the key is to make people aware of what counts as an emergency, it is hard to change someone's mindset, said the doctor.

"It's very difficult to educate people because it's a very subjective perception of what is urgent. Your urgent is different to my urgent," he said.

"If you're an asthmatic and you need a refill, that may be seen as urgent because you need it every day. But, from an ER department point of view, we may not see that as an emergency, or as urgent. It's a very difficult thing to quantify.

"Everybody's perception is that their presentation is urgent."

zalhassani@thenational.ae