The survey by GPonline and the MDU, which included 612 GPs and 591 hospital doctors, suggests that GPs are bearing the brunt of frustrations among patients about delays to care as a result of the pandemic.
Some 43% of GPs said they had received abuse from patients during the COVID-19 outbreak, a figure that dropped to 24% among hospital doctors.
The poll also found that two in five GPs (38%) have received a patient complaint during the pandemic, most of which were for things outside of their control. The most common causes of complaints were related to waiting times for treatment, remote consultations and delays in accessing routine screening and tests.
Almost two in five GPs (37%) said that the number of complaints their practice received had increased since the pandemic began. The survey suggested that complaints were taking up a significant amount of doctors' time, which they would otherwise spend seeing patients. Meanwhile many respondents also reported that they were increasing stress levels and could lead to some doctors leaving the profession.
Clinical negligence claims
There was also widespread concern among GPs that they will face even more complaints, or be subject to a clinical negligence claim, as a result of the pandemic.
Over three-quarters of GPs (77%) were 'very' or 'somewhat' concerned about facing a complaint as a result of pandemic. Meanwhile 70% were 'very' or 'somewhat' concerned that they could face a clinical negligence claim related to care during the pandemic.
One GP responding to the poll said: 'We see an extremely high and increasing number of complaints, and we are receiving a lot of complaints for things outside of our control. It is frightening to realise that we are likely going to be the ones blamed for this situation, potentially in court, not to mention the higher chances of making mistakes when working under such pressure.'
'Initially everyone was supportive but that is gradually eroding and demand is increasing and patience is reducing,' another GP highlighted. 'Complaints about smaller issues are increasing and taking significant time and effort to resolve.'
Another said that it was 'upsetting' to see the impact complaints had on GPs and other members of staff. 'I worry this will be one of the main factors in workforce issues due to stress/ill health and early retirements,' they added.
Delays to care
GPs said that, on the whole, most patients had been understanding about change to care as a result of the pandemic, but increasing delays to care and the mental health impact of the pandemic were contributing to the rise in complaints.
'The impact of the pandemic on mental health has been enormous and I think the anger we are seeing is a reflection of this,' one GP said.
Another added: 'Early on patients were very understanding, but now some are facing long delays to treatment and are much less understanding.'
MDU head of advisory services Dr Caroline Fryar said: 'Healthcare professionals are dealing with a wave of complaints from frustrated patients waiting for treatment or further investigations because of the pandemic. With the latest NHS England figures showing that in December over 220,000 people had been waiting for more than a year to start treatment, these cases are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.
'Many of the complaints have the potential to become claims for compensation in the years ahead. The stress of dealing with complaints and claims far into the future could push many doctors to breaking point. It could lead to an exodus of healthcare professionals at a time when the NHS will be depending on experienced staff to get through the backlog of cases.
'We are calling on the government to take action to shield healthcare staff from litigation against the NHS caused by the pandemic.'