Data on written NHS complaints reveal a 9.7% spike in complaints about primary care in 2016/17 compared with the previous year, rising to a total of 90,600.
General practice continues to have the highest patient satisfaction rating of any part of the NHS, according to the British Social Attitudes survey, but the latest figures on complaints suggest that the workload crisis facing the profession is taking its toll.
The rise in complaints came as the BMJ reported a 9% rise in overall recorded crimes at GP practices or health centres in 2016/17, including a 5% rise in assaults. GP leaders blamed the increase on workload pressure leaving primary care staff unable to spend as much time as they need with patients in distress.
The findings come just a week after an indicative BMA ballot saw GP practices vote in favour of a co-ordinated closure of practice lists in a form of industrial action to highlight the growing GP crisis.
Data on primary care complaints published by NHS Digital cover both general practice and dentistry, but 83% of the data relates to GP services. Around half of all complaints were upheld either wholly or in part.
The greatest percentage-point rise in complaints came in Lancashire, with 14.6% more in 2016/17 than the year before, while the South Central region of England saw the greatest drop in complaints - down 6.2% from the previous year.
RCGP chair Professor Helen Stokes-Lampard said GP practices encourage patient feedback and use it to improve services. But she added: 'The family doctor service has experienced almost a decade of underinvestment and as a result, GPs and our teams are buckling under the pressures of a huge increase in patient numbers but a shortage of doctors to care for them. Inevitably, this will occasionally impact on the service we can deliver and this can be frustrating for patients – and GPs.'
GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey told GPonline that it was important to recognise that of the millions of GP consultations taking place each week, a tiny proportion lead to complaints.
'However it's inevitable that more patients will be frustrated about NHS services, which is a direct result of the systemic underfunding of GP services and the unsustainable and unsafe workload pressures practices are under,' he warned. 'The way to address this is not to criticise hardworking practices but to resource them properly to be able to properly meet the growing needs of our patients.'
Data obtained from police forces by the BMJ showed a 5% rise in assaults, a 90% rise in public order offences and a 34% rise in cases of harassment at GP and health centre premises.
Dr Vautrey said rising pressure on general practice was 'boiling over' into confrontations with patients. 'GPs and their staff have less time to deal with their patients who are distressed or who are in difficulty or not getting what they want,' he said.
'It just shows that frontline staff, particularly those on reception and doctors and nurses who are in direct contact with patients every day, are potentially at increased risk as a result of these pressures that have been building up over recent years.'