Open Access Research article

Emergency management in health: key issues and challenges in the UK

Andrew CK Lee*, Wendy Phillips, Kirsty Challen and Steve Goodacre

Author Affiliations

School of Health and Related Research, The University of Sheffield, Sheffield, UK

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BMC Public Health 2012, 12:884  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-12-884

Published: 19 October 2012



Emergency planning in the UK has grown considerably in recent years, galvanised by the threat of terrorism. However, deficiencies in NHS emergency planning were identified and the evidence-base that underpins it is questionable. Inconsistencies in terminologies and concepts also exist. Different models of emergency management exist internationally but the optimal system is unknown. This study examines the evidence-base and evidence requirements for emergency planning in the UK health context.


The study involved semi-structured interviews with key stakeholders and opinion leaders. Purposive sampling was used to obtain a breadth of views from various agencies involved in emergency planning and response. Interviews were then analysed using a grounded approach using standard framework analysis techniques.


We conducted 17 key informant interviews. Interviewees identified greater gaps in operational than technical aspects of emergency planning. Social and behavioural knowledge gaps were highlighted with regards to how individuals and organisations deal with risk and behave in emergencies. Evidence-based approaches to public engagement and for developing community resilience to disasters are lacking. Other gaps included how knowledge was developed and used. Conflicting views with regards to the optimal configuration and operation of the emergency management system were voiced.


Four thematic categories for future research emerged:

(i) Knowledge-base for emergency management: Further exploration is needed of how knowledge is acquired, valued, disseminated, adopted and retained.

(ii) Social and behavioural issues: Greater understanding of how individuals approach risk and behave in emergencies is required.

(iii) Organisational issues in emergencies: Several conflicting organisational issues were identified; value of planning versus plans, flexible versus standardized procedures, top-down versus bottom-up engagement, generic versus specific planning, and reactive versus proactive approaches to emergencies.

(iv) Emergency management system: More study is required of system-wide issues relating to system configuration and operation, public engagement, and how emergency planning is assessed.

Emergency management; Emergency planning; Emergency preparedness; Disaster planning; Disaster management