HEALTH campaigners have blasted those who repeatedly turn up at emergency hospital departments with minor complaints - including two patients who visited hospital more than 100 times each last year.
New figures released by East Lancashire Hospitals NHS Trust also showed there were five patients who sought emergency or urgent care more than 50 times each in 2012/13, with 224 people seeking care on more than 10 occasions.
The accident and emergency ward at Royal Blackburn Hospital is the busiest in the north west, and campaigners said the frequent visitors were putting staff under unnecessary strain.
Russ McLean, chairman of the Pennine Lancashire Patient Voices Group, said: “These figures are quite appalling because most of these people will be complete time wasters.
“I know of cases where patients have turned up with a headache and want some paracetemol, as well as mothers wanting paracetamol for their baby. The hospital is already in trouble so this really makes me very angry.”
ELHT has been in special measures since July after inspectors made damning criticisms of the way it was run over several years.
The Lancashire Telegraph has also featured several stories about the emergency ward in recent months, as hundreds of patients have waited longer than the national target of four hours to be seen.
The new statistics, released under Freedom of Information laws, showed one patient turned up at hospital 136 times, with another attending 124 times. The visits were spread between the A&E ward, the urgent care centres based at the Royal Blackburn and Burnley General hospitals, and the minor injuries unit in Accrington.
Patients attending more than 50 times accounted for a total of 441 visits, while those attending 10 times racked up a total of 4,064 visits across the four sites.
Many frequent visitors had problems with drug or alcohol abuse, or mental health issues.
Emergency treatment is far more expensive for the NHS than primary care, which is delivered by GPs or pharmacists, and Mr McLean added: “People need to realise that although the NHS is free at the point of contact, it isn’t really free at all.
“All of us have to pay for it and patients really need to think carefully before attending hospital because NHS resources are so low. It needs to be a serious education drive to target these patients.”
Although A&E staff can offer advice to patients who arrive with minor problems, the patient can still demand to be treated.
As reported earlier this week, about a third of doctors believe hospitals should introduce charges for some attendances, to deter those who turn up unnecessarily.
But Ron O’Keeffe, chairman of Blackburn with Darwen Council’s health scrutiny committee, said: “I’m shocked by these figures but I don’t believe anyone should be refused care or charged for it. The NHS is based on the principle that it’s free for everyone.
“There needs to be a proper investigation into why these people are turning up so frequently and what we can do about it.”
Gordon Birtwistle, MP for Burnley, said: “It’s outrageous for anyone to turn up more than 100 times in one year.
“I find that astonishing. These patients are blocking up the system for people with real problems.
“The solution is education and the staff need to sit down and talk to these patients. They need to have the seriousness of the situation explained.”
The A&E department at Blackburn dealt with about 57,000 patients in total last year, with about 47,000 seen by the urgent care centre. Burnley’s urgent care centre saw about 50,000 patients, while 22,000 patients attended Accrington’s minor injuries unit.
Dr Charles Thomson, clinical director of emergency and urgent care at ELHT, said: “This is very frustrating as inevitably these patients take up the time of our staff who could be treating patients who genuinely need to be in the urgent care centre or emergency department.
“For patients that do attend inappropriately, we do not have a policy of turning anyone away but do suggest to them that their health needs may be met more appropriately by visiting their GP or pharmacist.
“As we are open 24/7 this invariably means that people who have trouble getting an appointment with their GP come to the hospitals for treatment. “ He said various measures had been introduced to tackle the problem, including a Hospital Alcohol Liaison Team, to work with patients who frequently attend with alcohol-related problems.