Patient flow within UK emergency departments:A systematic review of the use of computer simulation modelling methods

Syed Mohiuddin*, John Busby, Jelena Savović, Alison Richards, Kate Northstone, William Hollingworth, Jenny L. Donovan, Christos Vasilakis

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

41 Citations (Scopus)
166 Downloads (Pure)


Objectives Overcrowding in the emergency department (ED) is common in the UK as in other countries worldwide. Computer simulation is one approach used for understanding the causes of ED overcrowding and assessing the likely impact of changes to the delivery of emergency care. However, little is known about the usefulness of computer simulation for analysis of ED patient flow. We undertook a systematic review to investigate the different computer simulation methods and their contribution for analysis of patient flow within EDs in the UK. Methods We searched eight bibliographic databases (MEDLINE, EMBASE, COCHRANE, WEB OF SCIENCE, CINAHL, INSPEC, MATHSCINET and ACM DIGITAL LIBRARY) from date of inception until 31 March 2016. Studies were included if they used a computer simulation method to capture patient progression within the ED of an established UK National Health Service hospital. Studies were summarised in terms of simulation method, key assumptions, input and output data, conclusions drawn and implementation of results. Results Twenty-one studies met the inclusion criteria. Of these, 19 used discrete event simulation and 2 used system dynamics models. The purpose of many of these studies (n=16; 76%) centred on service redesign. Seven studies (33%) provided no details about the ED being investigated. Most studies (n=18; 86%) used specific hospital models of ED patient flow. Overall, the reporting of underlying modelling assumptions was poor. Nineteen studies (90%) considered patient waiting or throughput times as the key outcome measure. Twelve studies (57%) reported some involvement of stakeholders in the simulation study. However, only three studies (14%) reported on the implementation of changes supported by the simulation. Conclusions We found that computer simulation can provide a means to pretest changes to ED care delivery before implementation in a safe and efficient manner. However, the evidence base is small and poorly developed. There are some methodological, data, stakeholder, implementation and reporting issues, which must be addressed by future studies.

Original languageEnglish
Article numbere015007
JournalBMJ Open
Issue number5
Publication statusPublished - 01 May 2017


  • Computer simulation
  • Emergency care
  • Overcrowding
  • Patient flow
  • Systematic review
  • Waiting times

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Medicine(all)


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