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Three in four GPs report increase in abuse by patients, survey finds

Almost 2,000 members of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland responded to the survey (Andrew Matthews/PA)
Almost 2,000 members of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland responded to the survey (Andrew Matthews/PA)

More than three-quarters of GPs have faced an increase in verbal abuse or aggression from their patients over the course of the pandemic, according to new research.

The survey for the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) investigated how healthcare professionals’ experiences in the workplace had changed between the first and second year of the pandemic.

Amongst Scottish GPs, 38% said verbal abuse from patients towards them and their practice staff had “significantly increased”, with a further 39% saying it had “somewhat increased”.

Of those GPs who had experienced verbal abuse or aggression in the workplace, 83% said they were feeling more stressed than they did in 2020 when the country first went into lockdown.

More than half (51%) of GPs said they were considering taking early retirement or leaving their profession altogether, citing increased workloads, mental health and wellbeing, and staff shortages as the main reasons.

Chris Kenny, chief executive of MDDUS, said: “The pandemic has stretched our healthcare professionals to the limit. For those at the very frontline it is clear now that the levels of stress have reached an almost unsustainable point.

“GPs urgently need recognition, reassurance and realism to support them so they can reset their relationship with patients.

“These findings should be a wake-up call for policy makers up and down the UK. Their decision-making must factor in the clear connection between adequate funding and support for primary care services and health professionals, and patient safety.”

The survey of MDDUS members found female GPs were more likely to face verbal abuse or aggression, with 81% of women doctors saying they had experienced an increase in this kind of patient behaviour compared with 72% of their male colleagues.

The research, conducted by the pollsters Survation, also found health professionals remain highly concerned that neither government nor regulators have the right systems and rules in place to deal fairly with complaints made by patients about decisions or actions taken during the pandemic.

The research, to which 1,956 MDDUS members around the UK responded, including 592 in Scotland, was carried out between December 2021 and January 2022.

Across all health professionals, almost two-thirds (65%) in Scotland said they do not think the Scottish Government is prepared for the impact of complaints relating to healthcare delivered during the pandemic.

Amongst GPs, that figure increases to 70%.

Dr John Holden, chief medical officer at MDDUS and a former GP, said: “The results of our survey are distressing. We know GPs work hard to ensure all patients receive care when they need it.

“Being a GP can be one of the best jobs in the world, but right now GPs need to feel valued, supported and empowered.”

Anthony Omo, director of fitness to practise and general counsel at the General Medical Council, said: “There can be no place for any form of abuse in medicine. Everyone is entitled to work, or receive medical treatment, in a safe and inclusive environment and it is wholly unacceptable for family doctors to be subjected to abuse from patients.

“Primary care is operating under sustained workload pressures and for doctors to be subjected to such behaviour only exacerbates the very challenging situations they are already working in.

“We have reassured medical professionals that the exceptional circumstances will always be taken into account should any concerns be raised regarding a doctor or their practice during these challenging times.”

A Scottish Government spokesperson said: “No-one should be the victim of abuse or violence while at work and assaults on NHS staff are completely unacceptable. We continue to encourage all NHS organisations to support staff to report incidents so that action can be considered against perpetrators.

“Anyone attending a health care or clinical setting should remember that staff are there to help them and not to be abused. The wellbeing of practice staff is hugely important and a number of resources have been developed to support them.”