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Written on 21st May 2020 by Susan Brown

Leading medical health charities are joining the NHS in urging people to help themselves, their children and the NHS by seeking help from their GPs, NHS 111 and A&E services if they need treatment for serious health conditions. The charities’ call to the public follows a 50% drop in accident and emergency and other vital hospital attendances in April 2020 compared with the same time last year.

Whilst NHS services have been reorganised to prioritise the care of COVID-19 patients, NHS leaders and health charities are concerned that people are putting their own and their children’s lives at risk by failing to seek medical treatment for other serious conditions. The NHS’s Help Us Help You publicity campaign aims to remind people that the NHS remains open for urgent treatment. It also seeks to reassure those needing treatment that their medical care will be provided safely.

Why are hospital attendance rates falling?

Research and published statistics from various sources, including NHS England and Public Health England, suggest that the number of hospital attendances has dropped dramatically since lockdown was imposed in the final week of March. In the first week of lockdown there were 25% fewer visits to emergency units. During April, attendances at A&E departments across the nation were down by around 50%, with one million fewer visits than in April 2019.

The British Heart Foundation also reported a 50% fall in hospital visits by people with heart attacks. As it is unlikely that the number of people suffering medical emergencies has halved, these figures suggest that people who need potentially life-saving care are not seeking help.

Whilst lockdown measures may have reduced the numbers of road traffic accidents, or disease from increased hand hygiene, it is more likely that fear of COVID-19 infection has caused the drop in 999 calls and visits to A&E departments from people with medical emergencies, such as a heart attack or stroke. Fear of catching the virus in a medical setting might also explain why GPs are finding fewer patients presenting with red flag (warning) symptoms of serious health conditions.

Research also suggests that one in four people are worried about adding to the NHS’s burden by seeking medical help for their own needs, whilst NHS resources are stretched to deal with coronavirus.

Whatever the reason, it is clear that people’s reluctance to seek urgent medical help represents a threat to their lives. For this reason, seeking urgent medical help has always been one of the allowed exceptions to the government’s #stayathome guidance.

What is the NHS doing to encourage people to seek medical treatment?

The NHS’s Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens has tried to reassure patients needing treatment that, “While NHS staff have pulled out all the stops to deal with coronavirus they have also worked hard to ensure that patients who don’t have COVID-19 can safely access essential services.”

In addition to social distancing measures, many people may not be aware that health services have been split into COVID-19 and non-COVID-19. The NHS has increased its capacity by freeing up more than 33,000 beds, enough to fill 50 new hospitals, since coronavirus reorganisation began, with the independent sector also making 8,000 beds available if needed. Seven ‘Nightingale’ hospitals have been set up, providing more than 3,500 additional beds. This means that, so far, the NHS has more than enough capacity to meet its current urgent demands.

Reduced provision of non-urgent services and social distancing have played a valuable part in keeping the NHS open for priority care. Meanwhile, it remains essential, both for individuals’ own safety and the future of the NHS, that serious health conditions are treated promptly, to avoid the serious consequences and ongoing disability, which can be caused by delay.

The NHS’s Help Us Help You campaign will use social media, posters and advertisements to urge those needing urgent medical care to seek help from their GP, 111 or 999 services, or hospital A&E without delay. The campaign will also work to reassure people that it is safe to use other vital services, including cancer care and screening, vaccinations and maternity care.

Red flag symptoms and medical emergencies must be treated without delay

The NHS remains open for treatment of serious conditions.  Heart failurestrokecancermeningitissepsis and cauda equina are just a few of the many conditions which can quickly lead to death or permanent disability unless warning signs are treated without delay.

Associate Medical Director of the British Heart Foundation, Dr Sonya Babu-Narayan, has spoken out about why heart patients must not shy away from seeking urgent medical help;

"Whilst many things right now are uncertain, one thing that we can be certain of is that heart attacks kill. If people put off seeking urgent medical help when they are having heart attack symptoms they put their life at risk. Also vitally important are the many thousands of people in the UK living with existing heart conditions, like heart failure, who will also need to be able to access care immediately if their condition worsens. Our message is clear, do not delay seeking help. If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack call 999 immediately. If you have a heart condition which is getting worse don’t delay in seeking medical advice and help. You are not a burden, the NHS remains ready to treat you."

In a similar statement aimed at stroke patients, Juliet Bouverie, Chief Executive of the Stroke Association, said:

"It’s hugely reassuring to know how hard NHS staff are working to ensure that everyone gets the urgent care they need, despite the huge pressures that coronavirus has imposed. If you suspect that you, or someone you’re with, may be having a stroke don’t hesitate to seek medical help. Think FAST: Face, Arms, Speech – it’s Time to call 999. A stroke is a medical emergency as is a mini-stroke. Don’t dismiss it as ‘just a funny-turn’. The quicker you’re diagnosed and treated for a stroke, the better your chances of making a good recovery."

Leading meningitis charity, Meningitis Now, is also supporting the Help Us Help You campaign by reminding those affected by meningitis that,

"Meningitis is a life-threatening disease requiring urgent medical attention and the NHS remains open for anyone who needs it."

The charity’s helpline remains open and their experienced nurses are on hand to answer enquiries and provide information.

Parents put their children’s health at risk by failing to seek medical help or vaccinations

The Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has urged parents not to delay seeking medical help for their children. Reduced uptake in routine childhood vaccinations has become a particular cause for concern. Meningitis Now has reported concerns about the danger to patients (and the added burden to the NHS during the pandemic) of meningitis outbreaks, if parents delay taking their children to their GP surgery for their routine vaccines.

Referring to reports earlier this year which revealed that infant vaccinations have dropped to their lowest rates in five years, Meningitis Now are concerned that parents who are worried about COVID-19 may forget or not feel it is important to protect their children against meningitis during the pandemic. Dr Tom Nutt, CEO at Meningitis Now has spoken out, encouraging everyone who is due a vaccination to make sure that an appointment is made with their GP to receive it.

The Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunisation (JVCI), an independent body which advises the government on vaccines and immunisation, has issued new guidelines to clinicians to ensure that they prioritise time-sensitive vaccines, including those for babies, children and pregnant women. 

Boyes Turner urges those concerned about serious medical conditions to seek help without delay

For decades, Boyes Turner’s medical negligence team of serious injury lawyers have helped clients with severe disability which was caused when their medical treatment was negligently delayed. We have seen first-hand the physical, psychological and financially devastating effect that untreated conditions, such as cauda equina (CES), meningitis, sepsis, cancer and stroke, have upon individuals and their families. 

During these worrying times, we are continuing to support our clients whilst working within the government’s guidance to #stayathome, unless permitted exceptional circumstances apply. We support and echo our charity partners’ reminder that the need for urgent or important medical treatment is one of those exceptions. The NHS is open for those needing urgent medical treatment. For your own safety, help them to help you.