Exclusive: GPs face growing risk from violent patients, poll suggests

One in three GPs have felt threatened by a patient and one in six say they or a colleague have been attacked in their practice in the past year, GPonline can reveal.

Violent patients: GPs at risk (Photo: JH Lancy)
Violent patients: GPs at risk (Photo: JH Lancy)

Findings from the latest GPonline opinion poll suggest that violence or threats against GPs have risen in recent years. A similar poll in 2014 found that a quarter of GPs had felt threatened and around one in eight said they or a colleague had been attacked in their practice within the past year.

A total of 41% of GPs said their practice had had to remove a patient from their list within the past 12 months for being violent or abusive, the latest poll found.

GPs highlighted a wide range of violent, aggressive and abusive behaviour experienced by clinical and non-clinical practice staff. Many of the 550 GP respondents said verbal abuse was commonplace - but GPs also cited examples of being groped by patients during home visits, threatened by patients armed with knives, facing racist abuse, experiencing physical violence or being stalked by patients.

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: 'Any violent or threatening incident towards a GP or member of the practice team is one too many, but for so many GPs to report this type of incidents in the last year shows the impact of being on the front line of the NHS.

'Many practices operate zero tolerance policies but they don’t always feel that they are properly supported by local commissioners. We all need to do more to make it clear to patients that threatening and violent behaviour will not be tolerated and that robust action will be taken if it occurs.'

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Zero tolerance

Responses from GPs suggest that while some feel able to enforce the 'zero tolerance' policy adopted by the NHS at the turn of the century, others feel they lack the support to implement it effectively.

Despite this, most GPs feel safe working in general practice, the poll found. A total of 77% of 550 GPs who responded said they felt safe, compared with just 12% who felt unsafe - while the rest were unsure.

Locum GPs were the most likely to feel unsafe - with just 65% saying they felt safe, compared with 74% of salaried GPs and 82% of partners, the GPonline poll found.

One respondent said: 'We are so vulnerable on so many levels I could write a dissertation about it. As a female GP living in the area I work in - I have been stalked and hounded by alcoholic/ drug addicted patients. The police were the only ones who handled it incredibly well/ supportively.'

Abusive patients

Some GPs said practices should take a tougher line with patients who were verbally or physically abusive, and called for more support from NHS organisations.

One GP said: 'I think that practices do not always operate a strong enough policy about removing patients from list. I do feel that if we all were very firm that any threatening, violent or intimidating behaviour automatically resulted in removal or warning about removal things might improve a little.'

But another GP said: 'NHS England should be more supportive of practices and more strict on patients. It is very hard to remove patients and we are expected to call the police and obtain crime reference number - this is not always relevant or required and is not the best use of police time. NHS England very unsupportive of practices when we need to remove patients.'

One respondent called for warnings when new patients registered who had a history of violence, warning that there was currently nothing to alert GPs to potential risk.

Another GP responding to the poll said simply of general practice: 'It's a violent place, especially for a BME doctor.'

An NHS England spokeswoman said: 'Staff in general practice, like their wider NHS colleagues, should be able to carry out their work without fear of assault and abuse. NHS England revised its zero tolerance guidance to help GP practices maintain a safe and secure environment for patients and staff, and it encourages them to work with police to pursue appropriate action when violence does occur.'

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