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Unfair media coverage contributing to workforce stress and retention issues, study finds

by Louise McEvoy
7 October 2022

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‘Inaccurate and unfair’ negative media coverage of GPs in UK newspapers is ‘contributing to workforce stress and the retention crisis’, a study has found.

‘After brief and occasional mention of GPs as part of the “heroic” response to Covid-19 in early 2020, many UK newspapers returned to portraying GPs in negative terms,’ research by the BJGP has highlighted.

Researchers analysed reporting on GP remote consulting in nine national newspapers after NHS England announced in May 2021 that GP surgeries had to ensure they were offering in-person appointments, and also after it released a directive to improve GP access in October 2021, with focus on increasing the number of in-person consultations.

‘No articles from either time period reported on positive patient experiences,’ found the report UK newspapers ‘on the warpath’: media analysis of general practice remote consulting in 2021, with the study also noting that ‘morale in general practice is at an all-time low.’

The research found newspaper articles ‘depicting the difficulties patients have accessing care, but omitting key context – vast increases in demand and task-shifting from secondary care.’

Even at the start of the pandemic, when the shift to remote care was widely considered a sensible measure, ‘the significant work required by healthcare staff to enable a safe standard of remote care’ was often overlooked by the press, the research found.

The report said: ‘Comments by the media and government ministers suggesting that GPs were offering fewer appointments – and even sometimes conveying the impression that surgeries were closed – did not reflect what was happening in practice.’

The researchers found that although the number of in-person appointments was lower than pre-pandemic levels – 5.3 million in August 2021 versus 8.8 million in February 2020 – the number of telephone consultations almost trebled from 2.2 million in February 2020 to 6.2 million in August 2021. As such, the total number of consultations increased from 11 million to 11.5 million.

‘Negative media coverage matters not just because it is inaccurate and unfair,’ the report said.

‘It may also reduce patients’ confidence in general practice and prevent or delay them seeking care,’ and ‘there is emerging evidence that it also contributes to workforce stress and the retention crisis.’

The researchers said they had observed ‘a significant rise in anti-GP rhetoric,’ with ‘some journalists using remote consulting as a platform to criticise GPs for not fulfilling their professional duties, and thus further fuelling the GP crisis.’

The report suggests more research is needed to understand how different consultation formats, and combinations, can ‘maximise value’ for different patient groups and different providers, suggesting there is ‘significant scope’ for researchers and practitioners to contribute to media reporting and to broader public engagement around the ‘complexity of remote consulting’ in general practice.

‘This might help to minimise polarisation,’ it says, ‘so practitioners and patients can be better supported with situated judgements on consultation formats, as we transition into the next phases of the pandemic.’

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.

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