The advertising standards authority (ASA) has banned Brent clinical commissioning group (CCG) from using adverts that told patients not to attend A&E unless it was a “life-threatening emergency”.
Statements from the CCG warned local people about the “high demand” on A&E, a poster stated “A&E is for life-threatening emergencies only” and the website said “if you use A&E when you could get help somewhere else, you are taking NHS staff time away from life-threatening cases.”
However, the CCG said they had received clinical approval for the campaign and also stated where patients need to go for certain conditions, giving examples of when to attend A&E (eg persistent severe chest pain) and when to go to urgent care centres (eg minor head injuries).
The CCG offered to remove the word “only” from the claim, but ASA said that this would still be “misleading and potentially harmful” as it did not resolve the complaint because there were certain conditions and injuries that were not life-threatening but which required treatment in A&E.
The Department of Health (DH) said that they released resources for the Stay Well This Winter campaign – encouraging people where to go during the winter – after planning it since last February, and gave commissioners “clear instructions” on how to use it, a spokesperson from the DH said.
The ASA ruled in favour of Brent Patient Voice (BPV), a community group that challenged the adverts, and stated that the ads must not appear again in their current form, as they breached the advertising standards for both social responsibility and misleading advertising.
In response to the ruling, Robin Sharp, BPV chair, said: “We are pleased that an independent national authority has agreed with our concerns. They have said that the ads must not appear again in their current form and told the CCG not to inadvertently make misleading and potentially harmful claims about the scope of A&E services in future. It is vital that ads like these should be truthful. We regret that we had to take it so far, because we remain keen to work with NHS colleagues to improve services for the people of Brent.”
A spokesperson for Brent CCG said: “The primary aim of the campaign was patient safety, and it was based on nationally available messages. For example, the NHS Choices website refers to A&E being for life-threatening emergencies… The campaign had the support of local hospitals and doctors, given that many people often use A&E for minor ailments, adding additional pressure onto staff who are there to treat more serious cases.
“The ASA acknowledges that the intention behind our advertising campaign was to help support A&E staff to treat the most urgent cases as quickly as possible. It’s ruling is based on a single complaint out of a total patient population of nearly one million.”