BMA urges public to be kind as survey reveals worrying levels of abuse against doctors and colleagues

by BMA media team

Press release from the BMA

Location: England Northern Ireland Wales
Published: Tuesday 10 August 2021

More than a third of doctors have faced recent abuse from patients, or those close to them, according to a survey from the British Medical Association.

For GPs, the number was higher, with half reporting verbal abuse in the past month.

The survey of more than 2,400 doctors in England, Wales and Northern Ireland1, reveals a worrying level of abuse directed at doctors and their colleagues as they deal with the greatest health crisis in a generation.

Key findings include:

  • More than a third (37%) of all respondents had experienced verbal abuse first-hand in the most recent month – including 51% of GPs and 30% of hospital doctors;
  • One in five GPs reported being threatened;
  • Equally as worrying was that half of respondents (51%) had witnessed violence or abuse against other staff, which rose to 67% for doctors working in general practice;
  • Hospital doctors were most likely to report abuse of nurses (87%) or other doctors (65%), while in general practice, 96% of those who had seen colleagues face abuse said this was directed at reception staff;
  • Two-thirds of GPs (67%) said their experience of abuse, threatening behaviour or violence had got worse in the last year;
  • The most common place for abuse experienced by GPs was in their consulting rooms (53%), while hospital doctors said it was on wards (49%);
  • While respondents reported a number of factors they felt were behind the incidents, 64% (75% GP, 54% hospital) said the perpetrator was dissatisfied with the service or access.

Responding to the survey findings Dr Richard Vautrey, BMA GP committee chair, said:

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

“GPs and their colleagues are doing their absolute best, day in, day out, to provide care to their local communities, and we know that the vast majority of our patients appreciate the hard work we are doing. However, these findings show an incredibly worrying trend, with GPS reporting rising levels of abuse against staff in general practice, who are already working under intense pressure.

“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. It can leave even the most resilient GP feeling alienated and undervalued, leaving them questioning their career when the NHS can ill afford to lose any more staff in general practice. Meanwhile, being on the receiving end of rudeness can impact productivity and the quality of work, ultimately threatening patient care.

“There must be an honest public conversation, led by the Government and NHS England, about the precarious state the NHS now finds itself in after 18 months of managing a pandemic, so that people have realistic expectations, and to prevent staff bearing the brunt of frustration and anger.

“Alongside the urgent need for support for general practice and the wider NHS from Government so that we stand a chance of meeting the growing needs of our patients, we’d continue to remind the public to be kind and considerate when contacting their surgery – we are humans too, after all.”

Dr Vishal Sharma, BMA consultants committee chair, added:

“Doctors may pride themselves on being resilient, but that doesn’t mean they should have to put up with being abused, threatened or – in a small number of cases – physically attacked by the very people they are trying to help.

“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. Even before the pandemic we were vastly understaffed, and abusive behaviour will drive more and more talented and experienced doctors away from the NHS at a time when we need them most.

“When these appalling incidents do happen, action of course must be taken against perpetrators. But furthermore, we urge our patients to afford the same compassion to staff that they are shown in hospital, after what has been the most horrific year of our careers.”

A female GP partner in the South West said:

“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.

“In just the last week I have been shouted at because I asked someone to do a PCR test for their new cough and fever, and was called the most horrifically offensive name after I asked someone not to come into the surgery waiting room with a cough, and instead asked them to come to our onsite ‘hot clinic’ where people with Covid symptoms can be seen safely.

“I was also told to ‘go back to where you come from’ by a patient who was unhappy at me being unable to tell him when he would be seen in hospital.

“The misleading headlines about practices being closed haven’t helped at all. A few months ago a patient I was seeing face-to-face, less than three hours after she rang the surgery, told me it was ‘impossible to see a doctor as you're not seeing patients’.

“Meanwhile, my neighbour - who has seen me go out the door to work every single day through the pandemic - and saw me come home late and tired and in tears, said yesterday ‘are you seeing patients again yet?’

“This feels so unfair and unkind when we have never closed and never stopped seeing patients.

“These behaviours are causing staff members, from receptionists to nurses and GPs, to want to quit. 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.”

Ends

Notes to editors

The BMA is a professional association and trade union representing and negotiating on behalf of all doctors in the UK. A leading voice advocating for outstanding health care and a healthy population. An association providing members with excellent individual services and support throughout their lives.

  1. 2,478 doctors and medical students took part in the BMA’s latest Viewpoint survey between 6 and 8 July 2021.
  2. Overall results for the abuse questions are here, and broken down by healthcare setting here.
  3. The BMA provides free and confidential 24/7 counselling and peer support services to all doctors and medical students regardless of BMA membership. More information is available here.