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Majority of Brits think A&E services are overused but half think it is hard to get a GP appointment

Posted: 14.08.2019

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The first ever large-scale research into attitudes towards emergency care from the most recent British Social Attitudes Survey - carried out by the National Centre for Social Research and funded by the National Institute for Health Research - reveals significant differences in perspectives by a range of socio-demographic factors, such as area deprivation, age, young children in the household and gender.


  • People living in deprived areas are more likely to prefer Accident & Emergency departments (A&Es) over their General Practitioner to get tests done quickly, find it more difficult to get an appointment with their GP and think A&E doctors are more knowledgeable than GPs. 
  • Parents with children under 5 are most likely to have used an A&E in the last year, to think it is hard to get an appointment with their GP, less likely to trust their GP but are also more likely to use the internet to try to decide what the problem might be.
  • Men are less knowledgeable about how to contact a GP out of office hours and less likely to use the internet to research a health problem.

Use of services

The population is fairly united in the belief that A&Es are overused; a clear majority (86%) think that too many people unnecessarily use A&E services. This increases to 94% for people aged 65 to 74 years old and drops to 79% for those aged 18 to 24 years. When asked whether they had actually accessed A&E services in the previous 12 months for themselves or others, 32% of the public and more than half of parents with a child under 5 (54%) report they have done so at least once. In contrast, 29% of those without young children in the household say they have visited A&Es in the same period.

GP access and service preferences

Around half (51%) the population agrees that it is hard to get an appointment with a GP. Those with children under 5 (65%) and those living in the most deprived areas (59%) are most likely to agree. While over one third (36%) of the public report that they prefer NHS services where they do not need to make an appointment, those living in the most deprived areas (48%) and those with no educational qualifications (48%) are most inclined to say so. Only 27% of people living in the least deprived areas and 30% of graduates express this sentiment.

17% of all Brits prefer A&Es to GPs because they can get tests done quickly.  The figure rises to 29% when looking at people in the most deprived areas. This view is held by just 11% of people who live in the least deprived areas.  By the same token, those with no qualifications are twice as likely (26%) as degree holders to prefer A&Es to GPs to get tests done quickly (13%).

Perception of GPs versus A&E doctors

65% of the total population have confidence in GPs, while 11% state they do not have much confidence. This compares to 18% of those living in the most deprived areas, 16% of people with no qualifications and 20% of parents with a child aged under 5 who do not have much confidence. In contrast, 10% of those without young children and 8% of degree holders and 8% of those living in the least deprived areas feel the same.

Overall, just 19% of Brits agree that doctors at A&Es are more knowledgeable than GPs. However, this jumps to a third for those without any qualifications (32% compared with 14% of graduates) and 28% of those in the most deprived areas (compared with 15% living in the least deprived areas).

Use of digital resources

58% of people with internet access say they would look online to help understand a health problem, while 47% would use the internet to decide what to do about it. Nevertheless, substantial gaps between demographic groups exist. Young people aged 18 to 24 are twice as likely (62%) to research health problems online than those aged 75 and over (30%). Those without children under 5 (56% compared with 72% of those with young children) and people with no qualifications (42% compared with 71% of graduates) and men (54% compared with 62% of women) are less likely to turn to the internet for health advice.

Awareness of NHS Services and managing wellbeing  

When it comes to awareness and confidence to access the right NHS services, most people (90%) report being confident that they know when to see a doctor regarding a health problem. Men (76% compared with 85% of women) and young people (64% compared with 79% of those 75 and over) emerged as the groups least confident in knowing how to contact a GP out of hours. And while 85% of people say they could rely on family and friends to care for them in the case of a non-life-threatening health problem, this drops to 76% for those in the most deprived areas and rises to 91% for those living in the least deprived areas.

Commenting on the research, Alicia O’Cathain, Director of the Medical Care Research Unit at the University of Sheffield*, said: “Today’s findings illustrate that while the majority of the British population are satisfied with A&E services, there are marked differences in attitudes and understanding between different social groups when it comes to views on access and confidence in A&Es and GPs. This may contribute to the over-use of critical emergency care functions. It’s clear that there are lessons in these findings which will help government to better understand and support those least confident in using health services and shape policy moving forward.”

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