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Staff shortages inflaming abuse in general practice

by Julie Griffiths
28 June 2023

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Staff shortages and long waiting lists are fuelling abuse against general practice staff, a survey by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) has found. 

MPS said that nearly three quarters (73%) of GPs have experienced or seen verbal or physical abuse from patients or their relatives in the past 12 months.

Half of them said the incidents resulted from frustration at there being staff shortages and 53% said it was due to the referral waiting list.

The survey found that 92% of the GPs who experienced or witnessed abuse in the past year said it had affected their mental health.

Two in five GPs said an increase in abuse and intimidation from patients has made them consider their career in healthcare.

And nearly a third of GPs (31%) said that they feel abuse against healthcare workers is not taken seriously by police.

The MPS survey of 900 doctors, 271 of them GPs, found that for those in primary care, staff shortages and referral waiting lists were two main drivers of the abuse they were getting.

Comments from GPs described how members of the team had been verbally abused, threatened and spat at.

One GP said: ‘Patient attacked staff and destroyed the waiting room due to the waiting time for a GP appointment.’

This experience was echoed by a second doctor who said: ‘We do not have enough staff to provide enough appointments and when we can’t offer that patients become angry and threatening.’

A third respondent reported they were ‘physically and verbally abused by a patient because of the time they would have to wait for their operation.’

And another said there was ‘daily abuse of reception staff about lack of appointments’.

The MPS called on the Government and police to take every possible step to tackle this issue or face losing ‘many more skilled, committed healthcare workers during a time when the profession can ill-afford it’.

MPS president Professor Dame Jane Dacre said that staff shortages and long referral waiting lists were frustrating and stressful for patients and their families, but ‘GPs and practice staff are doing their best in very difficult circumstances’.

She said there was ‘the notion that abuse is becoming “part of the job”’.

‘Abuse against healthcare workers should not be normalised. Experiencing and witnessing abuse can have a lasting and profound impact on mental health and this can be damaging for the individual as well as for patient care. It can also result in healthcare workers needing to take time off work, and even quitting their career in healthcare altogether,’ said Professor Dacre.

She also called on health organisations to provide an appropriate forum where those who witness or experience any kind of abuse from patients can talk about it and seek appropriate wellbeing support. ‘It is not enough to just have this safe space – staff need to know it exists and be encouraged to use it’, she added.

Last week, Management in Practice published tips from practices that have implemented various measures to reduce abusive behaviour as part of its ‘Keep your Practice Safe’ campaign.