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Having to seek treatment at a hospital Accident and Emergency Department can be a traumatic experience at any time of life, but even more so if you are elderly or frail.

While younger people are better able to endure a potentially long wait in A&E, especially at peak times, it can be more harrowing for the elderly, particularly those with underlying health conditions.

Hospital A&E departments can also be disturbing places at time, especially on weekend evenings when many admissions are drink or violence-related. For patients with any degree of dementia of impaired comprehension, this can be especially frightening. While most UK hospitals have specialist units for particular age groups, their A&E departments have traditionally taken a ‘one size fitts all’ approach.

Now a hospital in Norwich is changing that by opening the UK’s first Older People’s Emergency Department (OPED) – a 24-hour-a-day A&E department entirely dedicated to patients over the age of 80. It is happening at Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital, which on average has 350 people a day attending it’s A&E department, with around 50 of those over the age of 80.

It is the latest in a series of improvements at the hospital aimed at providing specialist care tailored to the needs of older people, and cutting the time it takes to receive it. Now, when anyone over 80 arrives at the hospital’s emergency department, they will go straight to the new OPED unit for treatment by a multi-disciplinary team of consultants, geriatricians and nurses experienced in the care of older people. As well as the clear and direct benefit to older patients, it is anticipated that the new system will also ease pressure on the hospital’s main A&E department.

Dr Martyn Patel, the hospital’s Consultant for Older People’s Medicine, said: “Norfolk is home to one of the largest populations of older people in country, which is continuing to grow at a fast rate. This means we’ve got to do something that no-one else has done before in the UK, to ensure our older patients are able to receive the best care most appropriate to their needs in a timely manner.”

The timing of the change is also crucial, as the new OPED unit will be up and running in time for winter, which always sees a peak in the number of older people needing to visit hospital A&E departments.

Dr Frankie Swords, Chief of Division for Medicine at the hospital, added: “I’m delighted to be able to announce these improvements for our oldest patients in time for the winter. For older patients, we know that the earlier we can assess a patient, the quicker we can get them back to full health, regain their independence and avoid hospital admission. This is great news for our hospital, our patients and our staff.”

The initiative has also been welcomed by leading older people’s charity Age UK, whose director, Caroline Abrahams, said: “Being able to access excellent health and care services makes a huge difference to old people and this is never more true than when someone has a health issue demanding urgent attention.”

Other NHS hospital trusts will be keeping a close eye on the innovative new approach taken by Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. With more people living longer than ever before, the need for expanded and improved specialist care for older people is a pressing one.

According to the government’s Office for National Statistics, there were 571,245 people aged 90 and over living in the UK last year, and that number continues to rise. If the new approach to A&E services for older people at Norwich is judged a success, it could be rolled out to NHS hospitals across the country.

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