Accessing Healthcare: Urgent vs. Important

In a fractured world of healthcare what is expected and what is reality?

Dr Lydia Yarlott

Dr Lydia Yarlott is an NHS paediatrician and the Co-founder of Pando. As well as helping healthcare workers communicate simply, Pando also empowers access to specialist clinicians for patients everywhere.

In the UK, we’re incredibly lucky to have a healthcare service that’s there for us when we really need it. It’s a privilege to know that for real and genuine emergencies, the NHS has got us covered. But urgent isn’t always the same as important. It’s rare that we need an ambulance for a broken leg, or an emergency appendicectomy. For most of us, for most of our lives, our interactions with healthcare are much more mundane, but nonetheless vital.

Fighting fires in healthcare

It’s easy to focus on urgent and deprioritise important. When you’re fighting a fire, the immediate aim is to put it out, rather than assess and mitigate the long term impact, or consider what factors caused it in the first place. Take a medical emergency: your local A&E will treat your heart attack, but had you remembered to take important steps to avoid having one in the first place? Did your doctor consider it important to explain to you how to avoid having a heart attack, and will they take the time to answer your questions about recovery? Fighting fires is entirely necessary, but if everyone is deployed to urgent tasks, important tasks will suffer, and in the future there will be more fires.

These last two years in healthcare have been about fighting fires – towering infernos, more like. Whilst countless lives have been saved from COVID and other dire emergencies in hospitals across the country, it’s safe to say that for urgent and immediate care, our health system does its best, but increasingly, that care comes at the expense of other important objectives. As access to secondary care gets more difficult, general practice is increasingly creaking under the weight of the overspill and patients are left in limbo, not knowing where to turn. 

The reality of a restricted health service

The important care that is currently missing for patients spans every specialty, demographic, and geographical location. Unless your problem is truly urgent, it’s likely that you will encounter delays or difficulties accessing healthcare. It’s possible that you will be told, or even tell yourself, that it’s not that urgent. But that doesn’t mean it’s not important, and this is a distinction we could do with making more explicit.

Access to healthcare shouldn’t be restricted to the occasional (and perhaps even avoidable) trip to A&E. Looking after our health should be a seam that runs through our whole lives, especially as our collective understanding of ourselves improves and becomes ever more detailed, and personalised. Expert advice and guidance is not just desirable, but should really be an expectation. Made available for everybody from conception to old age. Yet the reality is that access to health experts is heavily restricted: six months to see a paediatrician, a year to see a dermatologist, eighteen months waiting for an appointment with an Ear, Nose and Throat doctor. All commonly cited waiting times in the NHS.

The power of accessing specialist healthcare

Better access to healthcare, no matter the perceived size of the problem, helps keep important concerns from becoming urgent. This also makes more room in the system for truly urgent problems to be dealt with. Remembering the importance of basic advice and reassurance is something we care about deeply at Pando. A seemingly unimportant health question might turn out to be fundamentally life changing (take a funny looking mole, for example). In expert hands, problems can be seen and responded to immediately, providing immediate reassurance, or redirection to exactly the right service. 

We should all expect excellent healthcare. And the fundamentals of excellent healthcare are speed and accuracy – the right advice, at the right time. Whether it’s urgent or not, questions on our own health are always important, and answering them sooner rather than later may make all the difference. 

This winter, Pando is helping the battle between urgent and important by giving parents free child health advice on Juno. Sign up for free and get quick support from the comfort of home throughout December.

Want to know more about accessing specialist healthcare? Read the steps Pando Access are taking to empower access to specialist healthcare.