Over a third of NHS staff experiencing verbal abuse and threats, says survey

More than a third of doctors have recently experienced verbal abuse including threats, with GPs the most likely to be targeted, a survey has found.

Half of all medics have also seen NHS colleagues such as nurses and fellow doctors being abused or assaulted, according to findings published by the British Medical Association (BMA).

The culprits were patients or their friends or relatives who accompanied them to an appointment. GPs said that abuse occurred most often in their consulting rooms while hospital doctors said it happened on the wards.

Delays in getting treatment and changes to the way the NHS operates as a result of the pandemic appear to be the trigger for at least some of the abusive behaviour, the BMA found.

“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, and the fact that we have to ask people to be considerate of others to keep everyone safe, by doing things such as getting tested for Covid, and not coming in when they have Covid symptoms,” one female GP partner in the south-west said.

She recounted how a patient had shouted at her for asking them to take a PCR test because they had a new cough and fever, and how another patient called her an offensive name when she asked them to wait outside the surgery waiting-room because they had a cough.

“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,” she added.

The BMA surveyed 2,400 doctors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland earlier last month. It found that while 37% of respondents had experienced abuse first-hand in the preceding month, many more GPs (51%) than hospital doctors (30%) said they had. In addition:

  • Half (51%), including 67% of GPs, had seen colleagues experience violence or abuse.

  • Hospital medics had most often seen nurses being abused while 96% of GPs said verbal hostility was usually directed at receptionists.

  • Two-thirds (67%) of GPs said abuse had worsened over the last year.

  • And 64% believed the abuse was prompted by the culprit’s discontent at the care they had received or waiting time involved.

“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,” said Dr Richard Vautrey, the chair of the BMA’s GP committee.

“However, abuse, violence and threats are absolutely unacceptable and should never be tolerated. 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”.

Dr Vishal Sharma, the chair of the union’s consultants committee, added: “We understand that when people interact with the health service, they are often in pain and distressed – with the Covid-19 pandemic increasing feelings of apprehension due to services working in different ways, or some treatments being delayed.

“However, we cannot let people take out their frustration at a system on individual doctors or their colleagues who truly are doing their best in the most difficult of situations.”

NHS England condemned the hostility being faced by staff. A spokesperson said: “It is not acceptable that NHS staff – who have devoted their days, nights and weekends to protecting patients in one of the most challenging environments ever faced – are experiencing abusive, intimidating and violent behaviour.

“The NHS will not tolerate abuse or violence directed at staff and despite the despicable actions of a minority, the overwhelming support from the public during the pandemic has meant a great deal to staff, who are proud to have helped millions of patients over the last year.”


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