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Explaining the A&E process

The A&E department (Accident and Emergency department) is responsible for dealing with life threatening emergencies and for those accidents or ailments that require immediate care.

The process is for those without appointments and operates on a waiting list system, based on first come, first serve. The triage system means that all patients are seen and reviewed by a nurse before seeing a Doctor and categorised so that the most serious cases are seen first. 

A&E is available to both NHS and private health insurance patients, although the criteria and waiting times may vary.

Going to the A&E department is different to getting an appointment with your local GP. For less severe injuries or illnesses, an NHS walk-in centre or an urgent care centre is more appropriate for treating you without appointment.

How it works

The department of A&E is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The medical staff in the department are all highly trained in medical emergency care, as well as general care. In the department you will find:


If you arrive via ambulance, you will be registered by the ambulance crew on your behalf. If you are extremely ill, the paramedics in the ambulance will complete your registration and allocate the right section of the hospital.

If you go to A&E without an ambulance, you will need to register at the desk as the first thing you do. This involves answering questions such as name, date of birth and address. You will also be asked why you are visiting A&E.


Triage is an assessment system which is in place to ensure that the most serious cases get seen first. You will be pre-assesed by a doctor or a nurse to place you in a priority category. Whilst beneficial for those with urgent requirements, it means that less urgent enquiries may wait longer to eventually be seen.

Treatment or discharge

Dependant on the results of your assessment, you will either be referred treatment (see as a specialist or consultant), be transferred to a different hospital or be discharged (sent home).

Waiting Lists

NHS - The NHS are committed to a four-hour waiting time for patients in A&E, although this can sometimes be double or triple depending on the level of business. Saturday nights and festivals tend to increase the number of patients.

Private - The waiting time for private health patients is typically less and can sometimes be seen immediately. However, you must have private health cover and be able to make your own way to the hospital, without the use of an ambulance. 

References from MediCompare.

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