Four in five GPs say abuse from patients has worsened in pandemic

Four in five GPs say abuse from patients has worsened during the COVID-19 pandemic, with delayed treatment and high demand for appointments fuelling frustration.

GP practice
GP practice

More than two in five GPs (44%) said they had experienced bullying, abuse or harassment from patients or relatives while at work - significantly higher than the 33% among hospital doctors, according to a poll by the MDU. A total of 6% of doctors reported experiencing physical violence.

The findings come after a senior GP warned that the chronic blood tube shortage forcing practices to cancel many non-urgent tests has left primary care staff facing even more abuse and anger from patients.

Treatment delayed during the pandemic and access to appointments - particularly in primary care - are the top reasons doctors say are driving abuse from patients, the MDU survey found.

GPs facing abuse

Abuse over access to appointments in general practice has continued despite practices delivering record numbers of appointments in the first half of 2021 with a GP workforce that has declined over the past five years.

The MDU poll of 418 doctors found that 66% of doctors overall and 79% of GPs had experienced an increase in abuse from patients since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Half of doctors said waits for treatment and referral were the main cause of anger among patients, while one in three GPs highlighted access to appointments as the key factor.

GP leaders have hit out repeatedly at false suggestions from politicians and in the media that general practice has been 'closed' during the pandemic - and have condemned communication from NHS England over face-to-face appointments that GPs said fuelled abuse over access.

GP access

Figures from NHS Digital show that GP practices delivered 122m appointments in the four months from April to July this year once COVID-19 vaccination work is factored in. Total appointments not including COVID-19 vaccination are in line with the same period in 2019, before the pandemic - despite the fact that official data are likely to under-represent the true number of telephone appointments delivered by GPs.

RCGP chair Professor Martin Marshall pointed out this week that 'well over half' of GP appointments continue to be provided face-to-face despite the pressures of the pandemic.

He said: 'The new ways in which GPs and our teams have been working were implemented in response to the pandemic in order to protect patients. The pandemic isn't yet over, and there is still a need for caution and infection control measures in practices.

'That said, NHS Digital's latest figures from July show that well over half, about 56 per cent, of appointments were face-to-face, so we are now seeing a rebalancing of remote and face-to-face consultations.'

COVID-19 impact

He added: 'While GPs and our teams have worked extremely hard to make sure general practice remained open throughout the pandemic, including for face-to-face consultations where appropriate, the fact is, we have a huge shortage of GPs and our workforce is not big enough to manage the needs of an ageing and growing patient population with increasingly complex needs. This was the case before the pandemic and it has only been further exacerbated by the events of the past year.'

Deputy head of the MDU's advisory services Dr Catherine Wills said: 'Despite the vast majority of patients being grateful for the work of healthcare professionals, our survey adds to a host of evidence that doctors and other healthcare professionals are facing a rising tide of abuse from frustrated patients.'

She called for an 'open and frank' public discussion about current challenges facing the NHS and an effort to manage patients' expectations.

Dr Wills added: 'The pandemic has been a tremendously challenging time for all, but it is never acceptable for healthcare professionals to be abused in the course of their work. This is particularly the case given the immense sacrifices they have made to care for patients during the pandemic. Facing abuse can also be an added strain on doctors’ mental health and wellbeing at a time when they are already under immense pressure.'

Polling published in August by the BMA found that half of GPs had experienced verbal abuse over the previous month - prompting growing concern over doctors' wellbeing and the risk of burnout.

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