Students visit A&E after searching symptoms online

Risk-averse advice websites and a lack of knowledge of the health system are contributing to a large number of students attending Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments unnecessarily, research in Nottingham has shown.

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Findings revealed that students will search their symptoms online first

Risk-averse advice websites and a lack of knowledge of the health system are contributing to a large number of students attending Accident and Emergency (A&E) departments unnecessarily, research in Nottingham has shown.

With 19-29 year olds accounting for 20% of A&E activity at the city’s Queens Medical Centre, researchers from Nottingham Business School received funding from NHS Nottingham City Clinical Commissioning Group’s National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Research Capability Funding, to conduct a pilot study with almost 100 students to discuss the process they go through before attending the emergency department.

The findings revealed that students will firstly speak to friends or family and search their symptoms online, taking the advice of websites such as NHS Choices, which can lead them to believe that their illness or injury is more severe than it is in reality.

Dr Don Harradine, co-author of the study and principal lecturer at Nottingham Business School, said: “People of this age group are what we could consider ‘mostly healthy’, individually they don’t use the health system very often, but they do use it in large numbers as they make up around 28% of the Nottingham population due to two large universities and several colleges.

We found that the students knew what constituted a ‘serious’ illness, but the level of severity is the issue.

Dr Don Harradine, co-author of the study, Nottingham Business School

“We found that the students knew what constituted a ‘serious’ illness; broken bones; head injury; bleeding; and breathing problems for example, but the level of severity is the issue. Because they lack experience and knowledge of other options available to them, such as walk-in centres, out-of-hours services and pharmacist advice, if an online search tells them their condition needs attention, they head to A&E.”

The research also raised the issue of ‘instant gratification’ as some of the students felt that going to their GP would take too long to get test results, whereas attendance at A&E would ensure a full examination and the availability of diagnostic technology – a common misconception according to senior clinicians who were also interviewed for the study.

Co-researcher Peter Murphy, also principal lecturer at Nottingham Business School, added: “We interviewed a number of health professionals and GPs as part of this research and, interestingly, they all agreed that there are actually relatively few patients who present for examination or treatment and don't need to be seen at all. However, care may be better given in a more appropriate clinical setting and they felt that this age group particularly misunderstood the role, extent and nature of GP and primary care services and what is necessary for diagnosis.

“For students in particular, more focus could be given to expanding and promoting the services campus-based health centres provide, as those who’d had contact with them reported a good experience and a better understanding of care options.”

Nikki Pownall, urgent care director for Nottingham City CCG, said: “It’s essential that we understand the way students use our local health system so that we can offer guidance about the most appropriate setting to receive treatment.

“Nottingham has one of the busiest emergency departments in country at the QMC but many illnesses or injuries could be treated in local GP practices, health centres or our urgent care centre.

“That’s why this research is needed to help us educate young people about where to go when it’s a not a genuine emergency.”

The intention is now to widen the research to include 19-29 year olds, or ‘millennials’, across Nottingham and beyond who are not students and will eventually result in an a plan to improve knowledge and understanding of health services among this age group.

  • Notes for editors

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    Nottingham Trent University’s five-year strategic plan Creating the University of the Future has five main ambitions: Creating Opportunity, Valuing Ideas, Enriching Society, Connecting Globally and Empowering People.

    The Queen's Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education was awarded to Nottingham Trent University in November 2015.  It is the highest national honour for a UK university and recognises the institution’s world-class research. Pioneering projects to improve weapons and explosives detection in luggage, enable safer production of powdered infant formula, and combat food fraud, led to the prestigious award.

Students visit A&E after searching symptoms online

Published on 23 January 2017
  • Category: Press office; Research; Nottingham Business School

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