23rd May 2014, Volume 127 Number 1394

Vanessa Thornton, Annie Fogarty, Peter Jones, Nouran Ragaban, Catherine Simpson

Presentations to all emergency departments in the greater Auckland area are increasing year on year.1 However, the increase in self-presentations in these departments is greater than the background population growth in the Auckland region.

The Counties Manukau population to which the District Health Board (DHB) provides healthcare is growing at 3.2% per year, while presentations to Middlemore Hospital (MMH) Emergency Department (ED) have been increasing at a rate of 5–8% per annum over the last 4 years.1 If this continues, services will be stretched well beyond capacity.

Middlemore Hospital Emergency Department is the busiest mixed (adult/paediatric) ED in Australasia, with an annual census of 98,110 patients in 2011.1 The hospital is a tertiary academic centre with all major subspecialties (except for cardiothoracic and neurosurgery).

Since 2009, MMH has focused on meeting the New Zealand Government’s target of discharging or transferring 95% of ED patients within six hours in compliance with the Shorter Stays in Emergency Departments Health Target (the Shorter Stays Target).2,3

Through a number of hospital-wide strategies, MMH has successfully met and maintained the 95% benchmark for the Shorter Stays Target. However, with the unprecedented and sustained increase in patient presentations to MMH ED, consideration of new initiatives is now necessary to meet the demand for high quality, cost-effective, patient-centred care.

Existing research suggests that between 15% and 40% of patients in New Zealand emergency departments have been seen by, or had contact with, a GP prior to coming to the ED.4–9 Primary care professionals have asserted that patients in ATS 3–5 can be managed in primary care, and that cost of access to primary care is a factor in patient choice.

The high cost of after-hours services in the community and the copayments in primary care, in contrast to the free service offered in hospital emergency departments, have supposedly driven the use of emergency departments by patients. This is thought by some to account for the rising percentage of self-presenters. Furthermore, many have commented that increased efficiency under the Shorter Stays Target may have encouraged patients to attend MMH ED rather than primary care services.

In 1995, MMH ED performed a prospective survey to determine patients’ reasons for presenting to the ED and their primary care utilisation patterns. This was an unpublished study completed by Lynn Butler for the CEO in 1995. The study included 199 patients who presented to MMH ED on 6 days over a 2 week period – 10 April 1995 to 24 April 1995 – between 0800 and 2215 hours.

Patients in the resuscitation and observation area were excluded. Demographic data was collected by an interviewer using a questionnaire that included questions about why patients had come to the ED. This study identified that 20% of the patients were told by health professionals to come to ED and 23% perceived their condition to be worsening or to be an emergency. Eighteen percent found ED convenient and 10% of patients’ GPs were unavailable.10

Successfully managing the increase in demand for emergency services within a health environment of constrained resources requires a deeper understanding of self-presenting patients. Elley et al discuss the need to focus our energy on the barriers to obtaining primary care before the need for emergency care is required, rather than concentrating on the appropriateness once patients arrive in ED.11

The aim of our study is to establish a demographic profile of self-presenting Australasian Triage Scale Category 3–5 (ATS 3–5) patients and explore the reasons why these individuals decide to attend MMH ED instead of their GP. The findings from this study may help to identify and implement changes in how demand for service is managed while ensuring that the appropriate care is delivered to the right patients at the right place.


Design—This was a prospective observational study with data collected on consecutive days over 1 week (from 14 April 2011 to 21 April 2011). Two time periods were identified to represent availability of primary care (in hours: 0900hrs–1200hrs and out of hours: 1800hrs–2200hrs).

Participants—All patients who self-presented to MMH ED and met the ATS 3–5 criteria during the study periods were invited to participate. Table 1 describes the inclusion and exclusion criteria used to identify participants.


Table 1. Inclusion and exclusion criteria used for this research


Inclusion criteria




Any patient presenting to MMH ED who was not referred to an inpatient specialist team by their primary care provider

Australasian Triage Scale Category 3–5

All patients are classified on arrival according to the Australasian Triage Scale (ATS). The ATS is a scale of the triage nurse’s impression of a patient’s urgency to be seen by a treating clinician, with 1 being most urgent (see immediately) and 5 being least urgent (see within 2 hours).

Exclusion criteria



Refusal to participate

Patient refused

Unable to give consent

Unable to consent to participate or unable to complete the questionnaire due to being discharged


Data collection tool—A structured questionnaire was developed to address the aims of the research (see Figure 1). To ensure the validity of the questionnaire and effective data collection, the draft questionnaire was reviewed by 5 MMH ED nurses and amended in light of feedback received.


Figure 1. The questionnaire used in gathering data from patients



In addition to the questions identified to address the primary aims of the research, patients were asked if they were aware of the Shorter Stays Target in order to gauge whether that had an impact on their choice to present to ED.

Patients were also asked about their knowledge of urgent after-hours care, when his/her GP was closed.

Procedure—Using the patient management systems available in the MMH ED, patients fitting the inclusion criteria described above were identified as possible participants to approach. A research nurse and/or the research assistant from the University of Auckland approached patients within 30 minutes of their arrival.

Due to the nature of ED and to ensure that completion of the questionnaire was uniform, the nurse/research assistant completed the questionnaire on the patient’s behalf by asking them the question and noting his/her response.

After each study shift was completed, a nurse/research assistant entered the data into a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet made to mirror the questionnaire (Figure 1).

Most of the information was collected at first point of contact with the patient or from the demographic data collected at time of registration by the clerks. Only the date of discharge, final diagnosis and test results (i.e. full blood count, electrolytes, X-rays, and ultrasound scan) were gathered at a later date using linked data from the hospital (Table 2).


Table 2. The outcomes measured and analysed for patients participating in this study




Age, gender, ethnicity, residency status, employment

Triage category

Initial (when presenting) and final (when discharged)

Length of stay

Time spent in ED

Patient disposition

Proportions discharged, admitted or transferred to another department (outside of ED) or another DHB

Primary care access

Proportion who did or did not have a GP, whether a GP was contacted prior to coming to ED, advice given by the GP on whether to go to ED

Visit type

Reason for ED visit: referral or self-presenting


Tests performed during ED visit


Diagnosis on discharge

Shorter stays target

Whether patients were aware of the target for 95% of patients to be admitted, discharged or transferred within 6 hours of arrival in ED


Analysis—The study demographic data and admission data were compared with MMH ED self-presenting ATS 3–5 patients for 2011 and across the two time periods for this study. These data were compared with the unpublished MMH data by Lynne Butler completed for the CEO in 1995.

Simple statistical analysis, including frequencies, proportions with 95% confidence intervals (CI) and mean (SD) was undertaken to examine and describe the data gathered from the 421 participants and the self-presentation ED data for 2011. GraphPad QuickCalcs software was used to calculate the 95%CI.

Ethical approval was obtained from the Northern Regional Ethics Committee (NTX/11/EXP012).


500 patients were approached to participate, with 421 (85%) being included in the analysis (95%CI 81–87). (See Figure 2 for reasons for non-inclusion.)

Figure 2. The study cohort and breakdown of eligible participants based on inclusion exclusion criteria



Table 3 outlines the demographic characteristics of the study cohort. The demographic characteristics of the study population were consistent with those of total presentations to MMH in the year 2011; thus the study group was representative of the ATS 3–5 patients that normally attend MMH ED.

Of the study cohort, 377 were New Zealand residents (89.5%). The age range was 15 days to 94 years, with a mean of 37.6 years (SD 24.6). Eighty patients were over 65 years old (19%) and 203 were male (48.2%).

Table 3. The demographic information for the sample of 421 patients included in this research study


The most common reason for presentation was medical illness (74.8%), while trauma accounted for 24.9%. There were 139 admissions to hospital (33%). Of these admissions, 33% were Medical and 26.6% were to General Surgery. This was comparable to admission data for all self-presenting patients in 2011 for CMDHB.

Most patients (n=393; 93.3%) indicated that they had a GP (1 patient indicated ‘No Comment’). When those patients were questioned as to whether they had tried to contact their GP on the day of presentation, 99 (25.2%) stated they had contacted the GP either in person or by phone. For this group of 99 patients, 73 (73.7%) were told to attend MMH ED, and a further 20 (20.2%) were told that the practice was too busy for the GP to see them that day.

Of the 73 patients told by their GP to attend ED, 30 (41.1%) were admitted, with 2 patients being transferred to another DHB, and the remainder discharged home.

Of the 321 patients who had not tried to contact their GP, 88 (27.4%) thought their condition was too urgent to await the GP, while 71 (22.1%) said the GP was closed, and 56 (17.4%) were brought by ambulance. Cost was indicated as a factor in their decision by 6 patients (1.9%).

The remaining 100 patients (31.2%) indicated a variety of reasons for not contacting a GP prior to presentation, including ED being their preferred choice at the time (see Table 4). Data comparison of the 321 patients across the two time periods (0900–1200 and 1800–2200) indicated that 20 (14.0%) attended ED because their general practice was closed during the morning period compared with 51 (28.7%) in the evening period. This was a statistically significant difference between the two groups.

Table 4 presents a comparison of data between the two time periods concerning reasons why patients who did contact their GP chose to attend ED.

Table 4. Reasons for why the 321 self-presenters who did not contact their GP chose to present at MMH ED instead: a comparison of time periods

Reason for presenting
















Brought by ambulance






ED is preferred choice






GP closed












Do not have a GP






International/out-of-town visitor






No comment












Sudden onset












If deterioration go to ED


















Most patients (233; 55.3%) had not considered planning what to do in the event that their GP was unavailable. Of those who had a plan for after-hours care, 91 (21.6%) were told to attend MMH ED and a minority, 13 (3.1%), were told to attend an urgent care clinic.

Laboratory investigations of full blood count, urea and electrolytes were performed in 77% (n=325) of cases. The following radiological investigations were performed:

  • Plain film (X-ray): n=130 (40%; 95%CI 35%–45%)
  • Computed tomography (CT): n=36 (11%; 95%CI 8%–15%)
  • Ultrasound scan (USS): n=25 (7.7%; 95%CI 5%–11%).

Of all CT and USS investigations done, 47% had clinically significant findings that assisted in guiding management: admission or discharge with appropriate follow-up.

362 patients, 86.0% (95%CI 82–89%), had not heard of the Shorter Stays Target.


This study is the beginning of a journey towards understanding the reasons for increasing ED acute demand.

This study has shown that the group that self-presents to MMH ED is a relatively young group of patients. This is consistent with the population statistics for South Auckland. Pacific Islander and Maori patients are over-represented in this ED self presentation group compared with background population statistics in South Auckland.

Current demographic data for Counties Manukau District Health Board’s catchment area show that Pacific Islanders make up 23% of the population but account for 33% of patients self-presenting to the ED, and Maori make up 17% of the total population and 21% of patients self-presenting to the ED.1 This cultural over-representation is consistent with overall patient presentations at MMH ED, and was similar to the patterns shown in Lynne Butler’s 1995 study.10

Analysis of GP access provides an interesting contrast in data trends. In 2011, 93% of patients had access to a GP; in 1995, 97% did. This same data showed that in 1995 only 3% of non-residents presented to MMH, but our data had this figure as high as 10%.10 One of the interim governmental policy changes has been the introduction of capitation to GPs, which may explain this phenomenon.

Almost a quarter of patients considered to be self-presenting had contacted their GP either by phone or in person and had been referred to the ED. This group of patients had consulted a health professional prior to making a decision to attend MMH ED. This is consistent with previous papers, including Lynne Butler’s 1995 unpublished data, that suggest between 15% and 40% of patients in New Zealand emergency departments have seen or had contact with a GP prior to coming to the ED.6–10

The admission rate in the 1995 study for self-presenting patients was 33%.10 The admission rate for all ATS 3–5 patients in 2011 (60, 020 patients) was 24.5%. In our study the admission rate was 28.2%. There has been a reduction in the total admission rate for all self presenting ATS 3–5 patients presenting to ED over 20 years. This may be explained in part by the change in model of care with the development of emergency medicine and the presence of senior medical officers in the ED. In addition, GPs appropriately perceive that MMH ED provides specialty services to a group of patients that can be effectively managed and discharged rather than referred for admission under an inpatient service. Examples of such services are management of toxicology patients, assessment of head injuries and treatment of fractures and dislocations.12

Analysis of the reasons why patients had not contacted their GP is consistent with many other studies.4,6,7 The most common reason for deciding to attend ED rather than a GP was that patients MMH considered ED to be the appropriate place to go based on their condition at the time. Lack of access to the GP was the next most common explanation.

The influence of lack of GP access on ED self-presentation rates is confirmed by the higher number of patients citing this as their reason for self-presenting in the after-hours sample compared with the sample taken in the morning, when GPs were more likely to be available. Ambulance referrals made up another 20% of the patients who did not contact their GP. It is likely that the decision to come to ED was guided by the ambulance responder for these patients. Lewis has commented in his 1988 paper on accessibility to care that one of the major reasons for ED attendance and opening hours was the main contribution to what was perceived as accessibility of medical care.8

Although there can be a cost to the patient associated with ambulance services, these are not charged at the time of the service provision, in contrast to a GP visit. However cost did not feature highly in this study. This is consistent with previous studies in New Zealand of this nature.6–9

Another important finding of this study was patients did not seem to be aware of other options for out-of-hours care. Most patients in the study had not planned how to access healthcare if their GP was closed and a family member was sick. Few patients (3.2%) considered attending after-hours urgent care services such as accident and medical clinics, and many had been told by their GP to attend ED. This supports Elley’s study, which found that primary care needs to be made readily available, and that patients should be encouraged to develop an alternative plan of care in the event that their GP is unavailable.11

Our findings for admissions rates for ATS 3–5 patients are not consistent with the assumption that patients in these low acuity triage categories are better served in primary care. Among this cohort of low acuity (ATS 3–5) patients, over a quarter were admitted to hospital. Understanding the function of a triage category is important.

The triage category of a patient dictates how quickly a patient needs to be seen within the queue that exists in the ED, rather than the complexity of the medical condition. For example, a patient with a dislocated shoulder could be ATS Category 2, whereas a complex medical patient who has presented with fever could be ATS Category 4. Furthermore, almost half of the investigations done in ED resulted in positive findings that guided patient care and disposition from ED, supporting the acute need of investigations in many self-presenting patients.

The Shorter Stays Target has revolutionised the process of admission to Middlemore Hospital. MMH ED has achieved the target of 95% of patients being admitted, discharged or transferred from the ED with six hours consistently since 2009 through a whole-system hospital approach. Many late adopters of the Shorter Stays Target believed that patient awareness of increased ED efficiency would result in higher numbers of patients choosing to present to ED rather than to their primary care providers. This belief is not supported in this study, as most patients had no idea of the Shorter Stays Target policy.

Study limitations—Our data are biased in that our study population was confined to patients who presented to the ED; we have not considered patients who attended a GP or an accident and medical clinic and were satisfied with that care. However, Ministry of Health surveys of the whole population indicate similar results to the findings of this study.13

The patients answer as to why they attended the ED was derived from responses to questions on the patients to access to their General Practice. Patients attending a GP or an accident and medical clinic may have a clearer understanding of available after-hours care. We also did not specify the geographical location of the patients in attendance at the ED and the wide diversity of access to GPs that occurs in the area served by Counties Manukau District Health Board.

Conclusion—Understanding patients’ reasons for presenting to emergency departments is crucial for enabling hospitals to develop successful strategies to manage increasing patient demand. These reasons are complex.

The key findings of our study indicate that a significant proportion of patients assumed to be self-presenters have in fact contacted a GP prior to their presentation and been advised to attend the ED for medical review.

We also found that many patients believed their choice to attend the ED was appropriate due to the acuity of their condition, or that they had been unable to access primary care.

Middlemore Hospital is now electronically tracking patients’ reasons for attending the ED in order to assess future trends and the impact of new health initiatives on self-presentations.


Almost 25% of self-presenting patients had contacted their GP or a health professional prior to their Emergency Department (ED) presentation and were advised to attend Emergency Department. The most common reason for patients to self-present at Middlemore Hospital Emergency Department is the belief that a hospital emergency department is the appropriate service to treat acute sickness. Neither cost nor knowledge of the Shorter Stays in Emergency Departments Health Target featured as a reason for attendance.



To determine the drivers for acute (Australasian Triage Scale Category 3–5) demand in patients who self-present to New Zealand’s Middlemore Hospital Emergency Department (MMH ED), we sought to establish a demographic profile of a sample of self-presenting patients and explore their reasons for presenting to ED rather than attending a primary care centre.


A prospective, observational study was undertaken of patients in Australasian Triage Scale Categories 3–5 (ATS 3–5) who self-presented to MMH ED over a 7 day period from 14 April 2011 to 21 April 2011. We studied two time periods, 0900–1200 and 1800–2200, to compare drivers for attendance to MMH ED during primary care service open hours and closed hours. A structured questionnaire was used to collect demographic data and outcomes. The cumulative 2011 demographic data for self-presentations to MMH was compared to the study data.


500 patients were approached to participate and 421 met the inclusion criteria. The mean age of presenters was 37.6 years (SD of 24.6) with 48.2% (95%CI 44–53%) being male and 23% (95%CI 19–27%) employed. Of those who indicated they had a general practitioner (GP), 23% (95%CI 21–30%) had contacted their GP prior to presentation to MMH ED, with 73% (n=73) advised to attend ED. Of the 73 patients told by their GP to attend ED, 30 (41.1%; 95%CI 31–53%) were admitted, with two patients being transferred to another district health board (DHB), and the remainder discharged home. Thirty-two percent of the self-presenting patients came to ED because they felt sick enough to require emergency care. Comparison of the data for the two time periods indicated only one significant difference: 14% of patients presented to ED in the morning because their GP was closed, whereas 28.7% of those who presented after hours did so for this reason.


Almost 25% of self-presenting patients had contacted their GP or a health professional prior to their ED presentation and were advised to attend ED. The most common reason for patients to self-present at MMH ED is the belief that a hospital emergency department is the appropriate service to treat acute sickness. Neither cost nor knowledge of the Shorter Stays in Emergency Departments Health Target featured as a reason for attendance.

Author Information

Vanessa Thornton, Clinical Director, Emergency Department, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland; Annie Fogarty, Clinical Nurse Director, Emergency Department, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland; Peter Jones, Director of Emergency Medicine Research, Auckland City Hospital, Auckland; Nouran Ragaban, PhD candidate, School of Population Health, Faculty of Medical and Health Sciences, University of Auckland; Catherine Simpson, Clinical Director, Intensive Care Unit, Middlemore Hospital, Auckland


We thank the participating patients who took the time to be surveyed for this research.


Dr Vanessa Thornton, Clinical Director, Emergency Department, Middlemore Hospital, Private Bag 93311, Otahuhu, Auckland 1640, New Zealand. Fax: +64 (0)9 2760000

Correspondence Email


Competing Interests



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