Demand for unplanned hospital services is rising, and children are frequent users, especially where access to primary care is poor. In England, universal health care coverage entitles parents to see a general practitioner (GP) for first-contact care. However, access to GP appointments is variable, and few patients can see their own regular GP out of hours (OOH). The goal of this study explored the association between access to GPs , emergency department (ED) visits and short hospitalizations (<2 days) in children in England.
ED visit and short hospitalization rates were investigated in 9.5 million children aged <15 years registered with English family practices between April 2011 and March 2012 by using administrative hospital data. Six access categories ranked all practices according to patients’ reported ability to schedule GP appointments; from national GP Patient Survey data. GP consulting hours were 8:00 am to 6:30 pm on weekdays.
There were 3 074 616 ED visits (56% OOH) and 470 752 short hospitalizations over the 12 months studied. Children registered with practices in the highest access group compared with the lowest were 9% less likely to visit an ED (adjusted rate ratio: 0.91 [95% confidence interval: 0.89–93]), particularly OOH compared with consulting hours (10% vs 7%). Children in the highest access groups were equally likely to be admitted for a short stay.
Increasing GP accessibility might alleviate the burden of ED visits from children, particularly during peak times OOH. Short hospitalizations may be more sensitive to other aspects of health systems.