THE Mayor of Darlington has issued an appeal for residents to help ease mounting pressure on NHS hospitals by avoiding attending accident and emergency departments for inappropriate reasons.

Councillor Chris McEwan was speaking after County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust revealed its tremendously stretched hospitals dealing with the pandemic were being put under extra strain by people turning up with very minor issues such as shaving cuts.

A meeting of Darlington Borough Council’s health scrutiny committee heard as a result of rising demands, staff at Darlington Memorial Hospital and the University Hospital of North Durham had been moved from ‘back of house services’ to support frontline workers such as emergency departments, but “everywhere is exceptionally busy”.

One NHS manager told the meeting while staff were coping well and the trust had support from people coming out of retirement, the emergency departments were there for serious and life-threatening issues.

Figures showed visits to the emergency departments plummeted at the beginning of the pandemic. There were less than 3,000 attendances at Darlington’s department in April and only 183 patients faced a wait of four hours or more.

By September, during the second wave of Covid-19, the number of attendances had almost doubled to 5,212 and the number of visits has remained over 4,500 since.

As a result of the pressures, in December some 23 per cent of patients seeking treatment at Darlington’s emergency department faced a wait of at least four hours. At North Durham’s department, 229 people faced four-hour waits in April, but this had soared to 1,937 in December.

NHS bosses say inappropriate attendances at hospital emergency departments are a perennial problem and may account for up to 40 per cent of those turning up.

Findings from a large number of studies agree that access, patient self-assessment of illness severity, and confidence in the quality of emergency care are key reasons for the inappropriate visits.

Reducing inappropriate attendance has long been recognised as an important area for intervention, leading to expanding access to primary care and the improvement of assessment systems so patients are redirected to the most appropriate care.

Cllr McEwan said: “People shouldn’t avoid seeking help if they have health issues, but remember there are many other ways than going to the accident and emergency department, such as contacting your local pharmacy or calling 111.

“Clearly at this time we have got to pull together and be really conscious of the tremendous pressure health services are under at the moment, whether it be primary care such as GPs’ surgeries.

“However, this is a double-edged sword, as while we’re asking people to reflect on how they use NHS services, there are people who have genuine health issues who are not seeking the advice and support they need.”