PATIENTS could be barred from attending accident and emergency departments unless they have been referred there beforehand, it has emerged.

A senior NHS England official claimed it “may well pilot” a new system in a bid to cut the number of people attending A&E, as fears for the future of hospital services were raised during a conference.

The so-called “talk before you walk” scheme could stop patients from turning up at A&E without first seeking medical advice elsewhere.

Loading article content

Dr Helen Thomas, national medical adviser for integrated urgent care at NHS England, was recorded speaking at the conference on Thursday when she stated that Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt had spoken to her colleagues about piloting the scheme.

The revelation comes as serious concerns remain over possible closures of pressured A&E departments at Darlington Memorial Hospital and Northallerton’s Friarage Hospital, in North Yorkshire.

Dr Thomas said: “I think it’s been done in other countries, where they have said to people, ‘you can't come into ED (emergency department) until you have talked on the phone’, or you have to have a docket that you’re given having talked on the phone that you do need to come to ED.”

She said that of 100 patients who go to A&E, around 20 have called the NHS 111 urgent care service number beforehand.

Dr Thomas added: “So I think, with that other 80, there is an opportunity there. Some of them will need ED, but there is an awful lot that won't.

“And in fact, my sister said she took my mother there the other day and there were people with a picnic. It's almost becoming a day out for people.”

The James Cook University Hospital in Middlesbrough recorded its emergency care department receiving 201,499 patients between 2014 and 2016, with almost a quarter of those being aged under 17.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has stated that introducing the scheme would add more pressure on to ambulance services with patients calling 999 and requesting help instead of going to hospital themselves.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chairman of the (BMA), said: “Pressure on emergency departments is down to seriously ill patients and a lack of capacity and funding across the whole system.

“All this proposed system would do is add an extra layer of bureaucracy for patients and an extra burden on the NHS, GPs, or other clinicians.”

However, an NHS England spokesman denied there were any plans to change the current system.

He said: “It is wrong to suggest or imply that the NHS will do anything other than continue to provide A&E care for all patients who need it, nor are there any plans to prevent patients from visiting A&Es alongside the other options now available for non-urgent care such as NHS 111 or urgent treatment centres.”

A Department of Health spokeswoman added that there were “absolutely no plans” to pilot the approach and that A&E departments would be bolstered with an extra £100m this winter.