GPs warned over online privacy after 'disturbing' patient threats

'Disturbing levels' of aggression in messages sent to GPs' home addresses, personal email accounts and phones have prompted a warning from medico-legal experts over protecting online privacy.

Privacy settings (Photo: iStock.com/stockcam)
Privacy settings (Photo: iStock.com/stockcam)

The MDU says it receives ‘hundreds of calls’ each year from GPs and other practice staff who have been subjected to ‘threatening, abusive or aggressive behaviour’. Since 2014, the defence organisation has opened files on nearly 300 aggression-related cases.

Although numbers of incidents have remained fairly stable over the past five years, MDU medico-legal adviser Dr Ellie Mein said there had been a ‘disturbing level of aggression’ in many of the more recent events. She warned GPs and practice staff to take steps to ensure privacy online and on social media.

Dr Mein said: ‘MDU members’ enquiries about inappropriate behaviour took a wide range of forms. In some instances threats were sent to home addresses, personal emails or personal mobile numbers of GPs, nurses or other practice team members.

Read more
>
 Dr Ellie Mein: How to handle aggressive patients

'Occasionally these mentioned family members or details of the recipients’ personal life indicating that the person had carried out research into their background.’

Dr Mein called on primary care staff to be careful when it comes to sharing personal information online. ‘Consider whether your home address, email address or connections with family members are accessible online including on business and company websites and in research papers you have published,’ she said.

‘Even if your social media security settings are high it is helpful to check what parts of your profile are publicly visible - are you happy to have family members included in public profile pictures for example? Sometimes your social media profile is private but you can appear in lists of friends or tagged in photos on friends’ pages which are publicly available.’

The MDU has also received queries on verbal abuse and property damage. More extreme cases saw GPs, nurses or administration staff ‘subjected to rape or death threats’, or ‘physical assaults’.

Zero tolerance

Last year, a GPonline poll revealed that one in three GPs have felt threatened by a patient while one in six said they or a colleague had been attacked in their practice in the 12 months up to March 2018.

Overall, 41% of GPs said their practice had had to remove a patient at some point during the year for being violent or abusive. Earlier this year, GPonline reported that a patient had been convicted of attempted murder after shooting his GP with a crossbow.

This follows a 2017 BMJ report, which showed a 9% rise in the overall number of recorded crimes committed on GP premises and health centres - from 1,974 crimes in 2015/16 to 2,147 in 2016/17.

Dr Mein urged GPs and other practice staff to ‘be aware of the possibility of a situation escalating’ and highlighted the importance of having a ‘clear policy in place setting out how abusive and threatening behaviour from patients will be dealt with’. This information should be made ‘readily available' in waiting rooms or practice websites.

GPC chair Dr Richard Vautrey said: ‘GPs and their practice team members are on the healthcare frontline working hard to do their best for patients. It's understandable that many of our patients are stressed and worried, but that's never an excuse for threatening or abusive behaviour towards the very people trying to help them.

‘Practice staff are trained to handle such incidents but it can nonetheless be very distressing. More needs to be done support our staff particularly when practices try to enforce a zero tolerance policy.’

Have you registered with us yet?

Register now to enjoy more articles and free email bulletins

Register

Already registered?

Sign in

Follow Us:

Just published

GP premises review 'critical' to success of networks, say GP leaders

GP premises review 'critical' to success of networks, say GP leaders

NHS England's premises review will be key to the success of primary care networks,...

GPC members call for radical overhaul of 'outdated' GP training

GPC members call for radical overhaul of 'outdated' GP training

The BMA's GP trainees subcommittee will call for a 'radical overhaul' of GP training...

LMCs call for revalidation and appraisal overhaul

LMCs call for revalidation and appraisal overhaul

GPs who have had five consecutive 'successful' appraisals should only be required...

Slight drop in full-time GP workforce over past year but partner numbers in freefall

Slight drop in full-time GP workforce over past year but partner numbers in freefall

The overall number of full-time equivalent (FTE) GPs fell by 27 during 2018 and the...

GPs to stop charging patients for debt and mental health forms

GPs to stop charging patients for debt and mental health forms

The BMA has pledged that GP practices in England will stop charging patients for...

Former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston among latest MPs to join breakaway group

Former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston among latest MPs to join breakaway group

Health and social care committee chair and former GP Dr Sarah Wollaston has left...