Nearly one in five patients in England admit they have misused Accident and Emergency departments at some point, a survey suggests.
The poll – commissioned by patient watchdog Healthwatch England – asked more than 1,700 people about their experiences and views on the NHS.
It found two-thirds were worried about the pressures on the system.
But 18% owned up to using A&E when they needed non-emergency care outside of normal GP opening hours.
The survey also showed there was a widespread lack of awareness about the other options available.
About a third of those who responded said they did not know where their nearest minor injury unit or walk-in centre was, while just one in five said they had used the non-emergency number 111 and NHS Direct when in need.
Healthwatch England chairwoman Anna Bradley said: “A&E has become NHS Express. The problem is it was never designed to be a catch-all service and nor should it be allowed to become one.
Anna Bradley, chair of Healthwatch: People are “not getting the kind of access they need to GP services. But blaming people for going to the ‘wrong place’ when we need care and support is the wrong way of looking at the problem. I’m not absolving us of our responsibility not to clog A&E whenever we get the sniffles, but until the health and care sector offers a more consumer-friendly experience, things are unlikely to improve.”
Katherine Murphy, of the Patients Association, agreed.
She said: “The NHS drastically needs to improve the out-of-hours care to ensure patients in acute emergencies are able to receive the high quality of care that A&E departments provide. Until then people will turn up at A&E in desperation with everyday medical problems. “
The release of the survey comes as MPs call for emergency care doctors to be paid more to work at struggling hospitals.
The Public Accounts Committee said the pressure on A&E – many of the major units have struggled to hit their waiting-time targets despite it being one of the mildest winters for many years – was being caused by a lack of consultants.
About one-fifth of posts are vacant and the speciality has also been struggling to attract junior doctors to work in trainee posts.
Committee chairwoman Margaret Hodge said: “What we found amazing is that neither the Department nor NHS England has a clear strategy to tackle the shortage of A&E consultants.”
But NHS England pointed out that plans to reform the emergency and urgent care system had been published in late 2013.
These included the creation of a two-tier A&E system and clearer information about when to use other services such as pharmacies, walk-in centres and 111.