A&E services pushed to the brink as people are urged to try other care options
Hospital emergency departments across Northern Ireland admitted yesterday they were under "high levels of pressure".
Patients were being urged to stay away from A&E units unless their cases were urgent or life-threatening.
The Health and Social Care Board (HSC) and the Public Health Agency (PHA) issued the warning and said that some patients were having to wait longer to be treated.
It was warned last night that patients with minor complaints, such as bad coughs and stomach aches, were pushing emergency services towards breaking point.
People with relatively minor ailments were being urged to consider a GPs appointment or to pay a visit to their local chemist instead.
The knock-on effect of people turning up at accident and emergency rooms meant average patient waiting times yesterday varied from just under an hour at the Mater and Royal Victoria Hospital in Belfast to more than three hours at the Causeway Coast hospital in Coleraine.
The HSC and PHA stressed in a joint statement they were working closely with all Health and Social Care Trusts to deal with the backlog.
But they urged people to consider "other care options available" such as their GP, nearest minor injury unit or local pharmacy if their symptoms are not urgent or life-threatening.
A spokesperson for the Health and Social Care Board said: "By choosing the most appropriate service, patients will receive the right treatment in the right place and will help alleviate pressures on other urgent care services at this very busy time.
"The public are reminded that emergency departments provide the highest level of emergency care for patients, especially those with sudden and acute illness or severe trauma.
"Patients who present at emergency departments will always be dealt with in order of clinical priority, so more acutely ill patients will be seen first.
"It is regrettable that some people are having to wait longer to be treated in emergency departments or to be admitted to hospital at this time."
The renewed pressures on emergency departments came after the launch of a campaign called Choose Well aimed at persuading people to move towards 'self-care' by buying over-the-counter medicines from pharmacies and supermarkets.
Pharmacists can also provide confidential, expert advice and treatment for a range of common illnesses and complaints.
The GP out of hours service is available along with dental services and emergency social work services.
Other average waiting times yesterday included between 90 minutes and two hours at the Ulster Hospital, Dundonald; Daisy Hill Hospital, Newry and Altnagelvin Area Hospital.
Times on average at Craigavon Area Hospital and Antrim Area Hospital were just over an hour, while at the Royal Childrens Hospital the waiting time was just 12 minutes.