This report from our QualityWatch programme, in partnership with the Nuffield Trust, examines changes over the last decade in the distance travelled from home to receive emergency care.

Ths report examines over a decade’s worth of data to assess whether the distance that patients travel to receive emergency care in England has changed. This is the first time such an analysis has been carried out.

It follows proposals published by NHS England in which its Medical Director, Professor Sir Bruce Keogh, set out the case for establishing a new two-tier accident and emergency service.

Main findings

The study finds that despite the total number of emergency admissions rising by over a third in ten years, the average distance from home to hospital has only increased by 0.2 miles. In most cases these distances are not large: in 70 per cent of cases, emergency admissions happened within 6.2 miles (10km) of a patient’s home, and only 3 per cent of people were admitted to a hospital more than 18.6 miles (30km) from home.

But the research did show that people in some rural areas have to travel over ten times as far as those in urban areas. For example, in West Somerset average home-to-hospital distances were 18.5 miles compared to just 1.6 miles in Camden, reflecting the differences in population density in these areas.

The research also reveals that changes in services can significantly change distances to emergency care. For example, after the A&E Department at Burnley General Hospital closed in 2007, the average distance for an emergency admission in Burnley District rose from 3.2 miles in 2006/07 to 8.7 miles in 2008/09.

In the adjacent Pendle District, average distances rose from 5.2 miles to 10.8 miles during the same period. By contrast, when the new Maidstone Emergency Care Centre opened in Kent, average distances fell by 66 per cent from 15.7 miles in 2004/05 to 5.3 miles in 2005/06.

Adam Roberts, Research Analyst, Nuffield Trust and report lead author said:

'There is understandably a high level of attention on the provision of emergency care and our research provides us with the first picture of the distances from home to emergency care against which we can assess change.

'However, despite concerns around major A&E departments being closed or downgraded, our analysis shows that the average home-to-hospital distance for patients who receive emergency care has remained remarkably stable over the past decade.'

QualityWatch is a major research programme providing independent scrutiny into how the quality of health and social care is changing over time. For further resources and analysis from this programme of work, visit the dedicated QualityWatch website.

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