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In 2010, the UK embarked on a self-imposed programme of contractionary measures signalling the beginning of a so-called "age of austerity" for the country. It was argued that budgetary cuts were the most appropriate means of eliminating deficits and decreasing national debt as percentage of General Domestic Product (GDP). Although the budget for the National Health Service (NHS) was not reduced, a below-the-average increase in funding, and cuts in other areas of public spending, particularly in social care and welfare spending, impacted significantly on the NHS. One of the areas where the impact of austerity was most dramatically felt was in Accidents and Emergency Departments (A&E). A number of economic and statistical reports and quantitative studies have explored and documented the effects of austerity in healthcare in the UK, but there is a paucity of research looking at the effects of austerity from the standpoint of the healthcare professionals. In this paper, we report findings from a qualitative study with healthcare professionals working in A&E departments in England. The study findings are presented thematically in three sections. The main theme that runs through all three sections is the perceptions of austerity as shaping the functioning of A&E departments, of healthcare professions and of professionals themselves. The first section discusses the rising demand for services and resources, and the changed demographic of A&E patients-altering the meaning of A&E from 'Accidents and Emergencies' to the Department for 'Anything and Everything'. The second section in this study's findings, explores how austerity policies are perceived to affect the character of healthcare in A&E. It discusses how an increased focus on the procedures, time-keeping and the operationalisation of healthcare is considered to detract from values such as empathy in interactions with patients. In the third section, the effects of austerity on the morale and motivations of healthcare professionals themselves are presented. Here, the concepts of moral distress and burnout are used in the analysis of the experiences and feelings of being devalued. From these accounts and insights, we analyse austerity as a catalyst or mechanism for a significant shift in the practice and function of the NHS-in particular, a shift in what is counted, measured and valued at departmental, professional and personal levels in A&E.

Original publication




Journal article


PLoS One

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