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Negative ‘media rhetoric’ to blame for series of unprovoked physical assaults, say GPs

by Sofia Lind
5 December 2022

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Keep Your Practice Safe

GPs are concerned that negative media rhetoric is stoking the frustrations of patients following a string of unprovoked physical assaults.

In the last weeks, at least three unprovoked attacks took place across Essex and Surrey alone.

GPs reported feeling ‘fearful’ to come in to do their job and urged newspapers to reconsider incendiary narratives.

Dr Asif Ghauri, senior partner at The Surgery in Canvey Island, said a physical assault had taken place at the practice last week.

‘The guy just walked off the street, went up to a room that has a sign that says “doctor” on the door. There wasn’t a doctor in there, it was our practice pharmacist, who is also an ACP.

‘The guy hit him in the head and, thankfully he was alright, but he was left very shaken and with a split lip.’

After the assault, the assailant approached the practice nurses, who had come out, telling them ‘I need help’, said Dr Ghauri, after which he ran out the door.

‘We didn’t recognise him as a patient, and we’re usually quite good at that. It seems he just wanted to take out his anger and frustration on somebody, and the NHS seemed like a good target. Clearly it seemed to us he had some sort of mental illness.’

The Surgery doesn’t have CCTV or other security measures in place because until now, it has not been necessary.

‘We haven’t needed it. The practice has been in my family’s hands for the last 50 years and nothing like this has ever happened before.’

Dr Ghauri thinks general NHS pressure and the way it is portrayed in the media has had an impact.

He said: ‘I blame the negative rhetoric against GPs in the media, scapegoating general practice for wider problems within the NHS. And the Government going along with that narrative because it best suits their purposes now.

‘This rhetoric creates a climate of opinion that GPs are not doing their job well. It makes us the target of abuse. This misnomer that we are not seeing people face to face, which is simply not true.’

‘It has also led to us getting more vexatious complaints from patients about things that are beyond our control. Around NHS waiting lists and access to secondary care, for example,’ he added.

‘As someone who works in a GP practice, it makes you very fearful just to go in and do your job.’

Dr Ghauri also told of another local practice being targeted in an attack just weeks ago.

‘About two weeks ago, a nearby practice had a similar incident. They have a security door but the guy shoulder-barged it to get in. He was escorted off the premises by the police,’ he said.

The Surgery also called the police about its incident, however Dr Ghauri said they were ‘initially not particularly helpful’, until being told the practice would seek media coverage.

‘It makes you wonder how much of a priority they think this sort of thing is. I feel somehow it’s becoming more acceptable to attack NHS staff nowadays.

‘I think it’s important for other practices to know that this has happened.’

Stoking tensions

Essex LMC chief executive Dr Brian Balmer, who went to see Dr Ghauri and his team after the attack this week, also said he believes media coverage is stoking tensions with patients.

‘The media narrative is that GPs aren’t working hard enough and this is backed by certain kinds of politicians. It is quite appalling,’ he said.

‘It definitely encourages people to blame GP services and certain right-wing media have been doing it, on an organised basis, for quite a long time.’

Dr Lis Galloway, a GP in Surrey, told of a similar incident on Twitter.

She wrote: ‘One of our team was physically assaulted today as they asked a patient to stop verbally abusing a colleague. Fortunately they are ok. Obviously shaken.

‘What I am struggling to get my head around is how anyone can think it’s ok to hurt those who try to help.

‘I’m so cross and sad.’

‘I love my job I really do, but this was just one of a series of really vile encounters today. I really worry for our staff who have to face abuse day in day out. No matter how nice a workplace, who wants that.’

‘Cuts and bruises heal, but the moral injury to the whole team really stings,’ she added.

A ‘Dr Victor’, who describes himself as a GP in Scotland, responded: ‘Sorry for awful experience… GP becomes a war zone… Just few weeks ago police had to escort [a patient] from our health centre as they threatened to burn the building if GP will not see them straight away. He brought a bottle of petrol and a lighter…’

Another Twitter user, who describes themselves as a GP practice nurse, added: ‘We’ve had police recently for someone who physically trashed a piece of furniture and then threw it at staff.’

And a ‘retired nurse’ said: ‘You’re right to be cross and sad. Unfortunately this type of behaviour is being stoked by certain “newspapers” who are always looking to create a new enemy.

‘NHS and GP services in particular are the current target instead of where the blame really lies.’

Last month, the BMA wrote to the Daily Mail to express its ‘anger at attacks and smears’ against GPs, following the latest GP-bashing article published by the newspaper.

Last week, GPs questioned the Telegraph’s choice to ‘name and shame’ a Surrey GP who moved to Cornwall and continued seeing the practice’s patients remotely while her colleagues sought a replacement GP.

The Telegraph also focused heavily on last week’s practice-level appointment data, saying it would ‘name and shame’ GPs over their ‘failure to see patients face to face’. They later highlighted ‘the areas where more than 80% of GP appointments are remote’.

New RCGP chair Professor Kamila Hawthorne wrote in response to the Telegraph coverage, arguing that it sowed ‘mistrust and fear’ among patients.

The media regulator ruled in August that Mail Online did not breach journalist code by publishing an article in June claiming that GPs have ‘fuelled’ a crisis in England’s A&E departments.

Last month, the Practice Managers’ Association (PMA) said media rhetoric that it is ‘virtually impossible’ to see a GP needs to end, as it is adding to the continual abuse of practice staff.

And one GP practice reported trialling a ‘meet and greet’ reception, having stopped its regular face-to-face offering following abuse from patients.

A version of this story was first published on our sister title Pulse.

Keep Your Practice Safe

Management in Practice has launched a campaign to #KeepYourPracticeSafe as more GP practices across the country are facing abuse. In a series of articles, we will share how practices are responding to the issue and what can be done to help safeguard staff. 

Read more stories from our campaign here: 

Managing patient abuse – how one practice removed its in-person reception

How practices can safeguard their staff from the impact of patient abuse

GP practice trialling ‘meet and greet’ reception following abuse from patients

GP practice urges patients to stop abuse after staff brought to tears

How to deal with aggressive patients

Managing patient abuse: ‘We’re constantly trying to adjust our systems to help’

And if you would like to get more involved in our Keeping our Practice Safe campaign, express a view, share an experience or write a blog/other article on the subject, please get in touch with editor Rima Evans.