Waiting Times In A&E: What Are You Telling Your Patients?

Author:Ms Joanelle O'Cleirigh and Sinead Reilly
Profession:Arthur Cox

Hospitals may be liable where their receptionists give patients misleading information as to the availability of medical assistance.

A recent decision of the UK Supreme Court found an NHS Trust liable after a hospital receptionist gave a man with severe head injuries incorrect information as to waiting times, resulting in the man leaving the hospital without being examined by a doctor or nurse. Unfortunately the man later suffered permanent brain damage.

While not binding on the Irish courts, the decision may be of persuasive authority and those operating hospitals in Ireland can certainly learn from the decision.


In 2010, a man attended at a London A&E department having been attacked and struck on the head. He told the receptionist he felt as if he was about to collapse and that he needed urgent medical attention. The receptionist told him that he would have to wait four or five hours before he was seen.

This information was incorrect. The system in place at the hospital was that anyone presenting with a head injury would be seen by a triage nurse within 30 minutes of arrival or as soon as possible and the nurse would determine how urgently the patient needed to be seen by a doctor. This system operated effectively and the receptionists on duty at the time were aware of this.

The man left the hospital after 19 minutes without informing any staff. He collapsed within an hour of leaving and was rushed back to hospital by ambulance. Unfortunately he suffered permanent brain damage.

The man sued the NHS Trust, and ultimately won on appeal to the UK Supreme Court.


The trial judge made a number of critical findings:

Had the man been told that he would be seen within 30 minutes, he would not have left the waiting area and his later collapse would have occurred in the hospital. In such circumstances, he would have been treated sooner and would have made a near full recovery. The man's decision to leave was made, at least in part, on the basis of the incorrect information provided to him by the receptionist. It was reasonably foreseeable that a person who believed that it may be four or five hours before he would be seen by a doctor may decide to leave the hospital. RECEPTION STAFF

The UK Supreme Court found that the receptionist in this case negligently imparted incorrect information, leading to a breach of duty on the part of the NHS Trust.

The Court noted that those responsible for running A&E...

To continue reading