NHS emergency care is “unsustainable”, leading doctors have said.

Experts said that there has been “unprecedented” pressure on acute care in the health service as they warned that “urgent” action was needed to maintain quality care for patients.

Rising demand, an ageing population, a lack of “comprehensive” alternatives to hospital and problems with discharging patients have all contributed to the difficulties, they said.

The Royal College of Physicians (RCP), NHS Confederation, the Society for Acute Medicine and the College of Emergency Medicine have set out 10 priorities that health leaders and policy makers should consider when making changes to acute and emergency care.

They suggested that there needs to be “effective and simplified” alternatives to hospital admission throughout the week.

Officials should also ensure that patients can be discharged out of hours - at present many doctors cannot allow patients to leave hospital at evenings and weekends because of gaps in social care.

They should also ensure that there is sufficient capacity within the hospital, and the wider system, to meet changing demand and a “sustainable” workforce, the bodies said.

“The recent pressures on acute services within the NHS have been unprecedented,” said Chris Roseveare, president of the Society for Acute Medicine.

“Urgent action is required if we are going to prevent a further deterioration in the quality of care for patients admitted to hospital in an emergency.

“Clinicians must continue to work closely with managers, patient representatives and politicians and ensure that these actions are implemented urgently, before the demands inevitably rise again next winter.”

Sir Richard Thompson, president of the RCP, added: “These 10 priorities summarise some of the actions that are urgently needed to help primary and secondary care cope with the rapid changes in health care that derive both from the success of medical treatments and the increasing age and changing nature of the population.

“Unless some of these actions are carried out quickly, the quality of NHS care will fall.”

Johnny Marshall, GP and NHS Confederation director of policy, said: “The current situation in urgent and emergency care is unsustainable. But we know that pressures in the emergency department are really an indication of the whole health service being under pressure.

“It is essential that we take decisive action - and quickly - to address these pressures, if the NHS is to continue to provide comprehensive high quality healthcare when people need it. It’s as simple and serious as that.”