GPs feel like 'boiling frogs' as abuse over face-to-face appointments continues

GPs are continuing to face unkindness, verbal abuse and complaints - leaving staff 'close to tears' - a month after an 'insulting' NHS England letter on face-to-face care provoked negative media coverage.

GPs criticised despite offering face-to-face care in PPE (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)
GPs criticised despite offering face-to-face care in PPE (Photo: Christopher Furlong/Getty Images)

Last month the BMA revealed ‘large numbers’ of practices had reported facing complaints and abuse from patients. It blamed an NHS England letter sent on 14 September for triggering an ‘attack’ on general practice - calling it ‘yet another hammer blow’ to staff morale.

The letter reminded GPs of their responsibility to offer face-to-face consultations during the pandemic and said failure to do so when appropriate could constitute a breach of contract. Statistics published shortly after the letter found that GPs had, in fact, delivered a huge increase in face-to-face appointments in the previous week.

Despite a swift apology from NHS medical director Dr Nikki Kanani for ‘any hurt’ caused by the letter, GPs say they feel like ‘frogs in the pot of heating water’ as they face the brunt of complaints about health services.

GP performance

Face-to-face GP appointments and home visits have surged by more than 50% in the past month, while telephone consultations remain at their highest point since the pandemic began.

GP practices in England delivered 241.7 face-to-face appointments per 10,000 patients in the week beginning 28 September, compared with 156.8 in the final week of August.

However, GPs and LMCs say they are continuing to suffer from the fallout of NHS England’s clumsy letter. Surrey GP Dr Dave Triska said: ‘Some people are being very unkind when speaking to us - they are swearing, being aggressive and confrontational - bringing up issues about direct access to GPs, or expressing their frustrations about secondary care.

‘This is happening multiple times a day and it’s really wearing people out. It runs through the whole team, reception all the way to clinicians… this has never traditionally been a problem,’ he said.

Patient frustrations

Dr Triska said that frustration among patients revolved mainly around late follow-up appointments, awaiting test results and deferral of appointments. He said the letter was like 'an overnight switch’ for abuse suffered by his team.

‘National media rounds have not done us any favours in the way they have reported the NHS England letter - it’s brought out people’s fears and annoyances. But I know that it’s a minority who act in this way, with the vast majority supporting our efforts,’ he added.

Other GPs have taken to Twitter to share their experiences of being under pressure from patients.

LMCs have fought back over the damaging claims, warning MPs that the profession has 'never faltered or stopped',and have collected data to demonstrate the strain practices are under.

Leicester, Leicestershire and Rutland LMC representative Dr Grant Ingrams said surgeries in his area had seen ‘similar experiences’. He said: ‘I suspect every practice has received some negative comments and complaints fuelled by the NHS England letter, and more importantly the approach of the lay press.

‘We were so concerned about the negativity that we have produced two press releases - the second associated with a letter for patients and an open letter to local MPs.

‘NHS England should really be educating the public about why they are still advising practices that all patients should be remotely triaged first, and praising practices for being so agile in redesigning services so rapidly.’

The BMA has pressed NHS England for a further apology, but this has yet to materialise. Medico-legal experts recently warned that GPs could face a huge wave of complaints due to changes to working practices adopted during the pandemic and delays in access to secondary care.

NHS England has been approached for comment.

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