Half of GPs verbally abused in past month alone as BMA highlights burnout fears

More than half of GPs have personally experienced verbal abuse in the past month, while over two thirds have witnessed violence or abuse against colleagues, a BMA survey reveals.

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey (Photo: BMA)
BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey (Photo: BMA)

GPs are more likely than doctors in other specialties to have experienced abuse, the poll confirms. A total of 51% of GPs said they had experienced verbal abuse ‘first hand’ in the past month - including racism - compared with 30% among hospital doctors.

One in five GPs reported being threatened while at work in the past month and two thirds said their experience of abuse, threatening behaviour or violence had worsened in the past year.

Three quarters of GPs said perpetrators of abuse were usually dissatisfied with the service or access. More than 95% reported seeing abuse directed at reception staff, while around a third had seen both other doctors and nursing staff face abuse.

Zero tolerance

BMA GP committee chair Dr Richard Vautrey warned that abuse towards GPs and other practice staff is ‘absolutely unacceptable and should never be tolerated’.

The Leeds GP said: 'The last year and a half has been an incredibly challenging time for both doctors and patients, and many doctors share the frustration of their patients around unfamiliar ways of working, or if waiting times are too long. However, abuse, violence and threats are absolutely unacceptable and should never be tolerated.

‘GPs and their colleagues are doing their absolute best, day in, day out, to provide care to their local communities, and we know that the vast majority of our patients appreciate the hard work we are doing. However, these findings show an incredibly worrying trend, with GPs reporting rising levels of abuse against staff in general practice, who are already working under intense pressure.'

Dr Vautrey called for the government and NHS England to lead an 'honest conversation' with patients about pressure on the NHS after more than a year of the COVID-19 pandemic to create 'realistic expectations' of services.

GPs facing abuse

The findings come after a report earlier this year found that GPs were nearly twice as likely to have received abuse from patients during the COVID-19 pandemic as their counterparts in hospital.

The BMA poll found that GPs were most likely to face abuse in their consulting room, with 53% of respondents reporting abuse in that setting, while 27% reported incidents in the waiting room and 14% had experienced abuse while working remotely or from home.

A female GP partner in south-west England told the BMA about the abuse she and staff at her surgery had received during the last year. She said: ‘We get shouted at, spoken to harshly and called unkind and unhelpful, often for things that are not within our control, such as hospital waiting lists.

‘In just the last week I have been shouted at because I asked someone to do a PCR test for their new cough and fever, and was called the most horrifically offensive name after I asked someone not to come into the surgery waiting room with a cough, and instead asked them to come to our onsite "hot clinic" where people with COVID-19 symptoms can be seen safely.

‘I was also told to "go back to where you come from" by a patient who was unhappy at me being unable to tell him when he would be seen in hospital.

Face-to-face consultations

She added: ‘The misleading headlines about practices being closed haven’t helped at all. A few months ago a patient I was seeing face-to-face, less than three hours after she rang the surgery, told me it was "impossible to see a doctor as you're not seeing patients".

‘Meanwhile, my neighbour - who has seen me go out the door to work every single day through the pandemic - and saw me come home late and tired and in tears, said yesterday: "Are you seeing patients again yet?" This feels so unfair and unkind when we have never closed and never stopped seeing patients.’

Last September, the BMA warned that GP practices faced a wave of abuse and complaints after a letter from NHS England - reminding GPs to offer face-to-face consultations - triggered damaging media coverage about access to face-to-face appointments. GP leaders passed a vote of no confidence in NHS England earlier this year after practices were told to offer face-to-face appointments to all patients who requested them.

The partner responding to the BMA poll added that abuse had left staff 'from receptionists to nurses and GPs' wanting to quit. She added: 'Our local practice managers are so distressed by the unrelenting complaints and poor behaviour that they are leaving in droves. The social contract that general practice prides itself on being built on seems to have broken down and people think it's ok to be rude and unkind.'

Burnout fears

Dr Vautrey added: ‘Facing such abuse leaves doctors fearing for the safety of themselves, their colleagues and their loved ones, which can have a profound effect on their wellbeing. It can leave even the most resilient GP feeling alienated and undervalued, leaving them questioning their career when the NHS can ill afford to lose any more staff in general practice. Meanwhile, being on the receiving end of rudeness can impact productivity and the quality of work, ultimately threatening patient care.

‘There must be an honest public conversation, led by the government and NHS England, about the precarious state the NHS now finds itself in after 18 months of managing a pandemic, so that people have realistic expectations, and to prevent staff bearing the brunt of frustration and anger.

‘Alongside the urgent need for support for general practice and the wider NHS from the government so that we stand a chance of meeting the growing needs of our patients, we’d continue to remind the public to be kind and considerate when contacting their surgery - we are humans too, after all.’

Medico-legal lead at the Medical Protection Society (MPS) Dr Pallavi Bradshaw said: ‘GP surgeries have clearly borne the brunt of the public’s frustrations, and it is shocking and appalling that our frontline workers have been facing this sort of abuse.

‘Abuse presents yet another source of anxiety at a time when many healthcare workers have expressed grave concerns about their mental wellbeing. GPs are mentally and physically exhausted with the risk of disillusionment and burnout higher than ever.'

A recent MPS survey found that three quarters of primary care staff had faced verbal abuse linked to the COVID-19 vaccination programme and more than half threats of physical assault or had their premises defaced or damaged.

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