Three out of four family doctors have faced an increase in verbal abuse or aggression from their patients, leading to a huge increase in work-related stress, a new survey reveals.
The findings show the impact that Covid-19 infection control measures, such as reducing access to face-to-face consultations, have had on the GP-patient relationship.
The UK-wide survey of almost 2,000 members of the medical defence organisation MDDUS investigated how healthcare professionals’ experiences in the workplace had changed between the first and second year of the pandemic.
Overall, it found that the UK healthcare workforce is now more stressed and anxious than at the height of the Covid-19 health emergency in 2020. And that frontline GPs are struggling the most, with plunging morale and a crisis in their mental health and wellbeing.
Amongst GPs, 38% said verbal abuse from patients towards them and their practice staff had “significantly increased”, with a further 38% saying it had “somewhat increased”.
Consequently, one in two GPs (51%) are considering taking early retirement or leaving their profession all together. The main reasons cited are increased workloads, mental health and wellbeing, and staff shortages.
One third of all health professionals reported their current level of health and wellbeing is worse in comparison to the first wave of Covid-19. Among GPs, 43% reported a downturn in their health and wellbeing.
And of those GPs who had experienced verbal abuse or aggression in the workplace, 83% said they were feeling more stressed than they did in 2020 when the United Kingdom first went into lockdown.
The survey also found that female GPs were more likely to face verbal abuse or aggression, with 81% of women doctors saying they had experienced an increase in this kind of patient behaviour compared with 72% of their male colleagues.
Chris Kenny, chief executive of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS), said: “The pandemic has stretched our healthcare professionals to the limit. For those at the very frontline it is clear now that the levels of stress have reached an almost unsustainable point.
“GPs urgently need recognition, reassurance and realism to support them so they can reset their relationship with patients.
“These findings should be a wake-up call for policy makers up and down the UK. Their decision-making must factor in the clear connection between adequate funding and support for primary care services and health professionals, and patient safety.”
Complaints handling concerns
The survey, conducted for MDDUS by the pollsters Survation, also found that health professionals remain highly concerned that neither government nor regulators have the right systems and rules in place to deal fairly with complaints made by patients about decisions or actions taken during the pandemic.
Across all health professionals, 65% do not think the government is prepared for the impact of complaints relating to healthcare delivered during the pandemic. Amongst GPs that figure increases to 70%.
In 2021, healthcare regulators reassured their registrants they will take into account the unprecedented conditions created by Covid-19, and that is reflected in the survey results. Yet a significant 49% of all respondents said they remained concerned their regulator wasn’t prepared. Amongst GPs the number was higher at 55%.
Dr John Holden, chief medical officer at MDDUS and a former GP, said: “The results of our survey are distressing. We know GPs work hard to ensure all patients receive care when they need it.
“Being a GP can be one of the best jobs in the world, but right now GPs need to feel valued, supported and empowered.
“In addition, regulators will need to redouble their efforts to communicate to all healthcare professionals that their systems have been revised to take into account the extraordinary conditions doctors and dentists have worked through since 2020.”
The opinion pollster Survation questioned 1956 members of the Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS), a clinical defence organisation that represents health professionals across the UK.
The survey looked at the experiences of its members in 2021, the second year of the pandemic, and asked a series of questions that looked at how these had changed since 2020.
It found that across the UK, amongst all health professionals (GPs, hospital doctors, dentists and allied health professionals):
- 49% of MDDUS members are experiencing higher levels of stress now compared with the first year of Covid-19 in 2020.
- A third (34%) of MDDUS members reported their current level of health and wellbeing is worse in comparison to the first wave. This is more pronounced among GPs/GP practice managers where 43% reported this.
- Compared to 2020, about half of MDDUS members are now experiencing a higher level of stress, anxiety (49% stress, 44% anxiety).
- 50% said they were more concerned about the risk of patient complaints or legal action than they were in 2020.
- Two in five (44%) feel that staging public inquiries will bring increased clarity and understanding of the circumstances healthcare professionals are working under.
- More than 70% of GPs said the volume of complaints they received had increased, and of those complaints made, those relating to the availability of consultations had gone up by 82%.
The Medical and Dental Defence Union of Scotland (MDDUS) is a mutual organisation that protects the professional interests of more than 54,000 doctors and dentists across the United Kingdom, offering access to indemnity, support and legal advice.
For further information please contact Alison Hardie, head of public affairs and strategic communications, on firstname.lastname@example.org or on 07501 421398