Treatment targets in emergency departments: nurses' views of how they affect clinical practice

J Clin Nurs. 2015 Aug;24(15-16):2211-8. doi: 10.1111/jocn.12835. Epub 2015 Apr 7.


Aims and objectives: To understand nurses' views and experiences of four-hour treatment targets in the emergency department and how this impacts clinical decision-making throughout acute secondary care hospitals.

Background: In many countries, national treatment targets in the emergency department have been introduced. However, research and a recent enquiry into poor clinical care in one hospital in the UK have highlighted that patient care may be compromised by the need to meet these targets.

Design: Qualitative descriptive study as part of a case study approach.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews were conducted with 31 nurses working in UK secondary care hospitals which had an emergency department. Nurses were purposively sampled from three specialties: emergency arenas (emergency department, n = 5; medical assessment n = 4 surgical receiving n = 2) (n = 11), surgical wards (n = 11) and medical wards (n = 9).

Results: Nurses in emergency arenas reported considerable burden, in terms of a very high workload and pressure from senior staff to meet the target. Respondents reported that negative impact on patient care for the majority of patients, excluding the most sick, for whom emergency arena nurses reported that they ensured received appropriate treatment, regardless of breaching treatment targets. Around half of the nurses working outside emergency arenas felt pressure and amended their work practices to enable colleagues in emergency arenas to meet treatment targets.

Conclusions: Four-hour targets were not viewed as clinically helpful by the majority of nurses, some of whom questioned their appropriateness for patient care.

Relevance to clinical practice: Policy makers and senior managers should consider the suitability of treatment targets in the emergency department, particularly in relation to working conditions for nurses and other health professionals and its potential for negative impacts on patient care. While targets remain in place, senior nurses and managers should support nurses who breach the target to provide optimum clinical care.

Keywords: discretion; emergency care; emergency department; health care; health care administration; nurses; nursing care; qualitative; targets; work environment.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Attitude of Health Personnel*
  • Clinical Competence
  • Decision Making*
  • Emergency Service, Hospital*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Nursing Staff, Hospital*
  • State Medicine
  • United Kingdom
  • Workforce
  • Workload*
  • Young Adult