Two-thirds of doctors say that levels of abuse from patients and their representatives had increased since the start of the pandemic, according to a new survey from the Medical Defence Union (MDU).

The figure rose to 79% among GPs. Of the 418 doctors who responded to the survey 44% of GPs and 33% of consultants and hospital doctors said they had experienced bullying, abuse or harassment from patients or relatives while at work. 

Of the reasons identified for patients and their relatives to become abusive, nearly half of doctors surveyed (49%) said waiting times for treatment and referral were the main cause.  

A third (32%) of GPs said the cause was appointment availability. This is despite findings from the Health Foundation that the number of GP appointments taking place in March 2021 was at a record high, exceeding pre pandemic levels of March 2019.

The solutions called for among doctors were more public education to help manage patient expectations, more prosecutions of those who abuse healthcare professionals, improved security and improved health and wellbeing services and training.

Never acceptable for healthcare professionals to be abused 

Other findings from the MDU survey of its members included:

  • 88% of consultants and hospital doctors said patients have been understanding about pandemic disruption. This figure dropped to 64% for GPs.
  • 6% of doctors had experienced physical violence.
  • 6% of doctors had experienced abuse while not at work, due to them being identified as a healthcare professional. 
  • 19% of consultants and hospital doctors said the implementation of policies to prevent the spread of COVID-19 led to abuse from patients. 5% of GPs reported this had led to abuse.

Dr Catherine Wills, deputy head of the MDU’s advisory services, said: “Despite the vast majority of patients being grateful for the work of healthcare professionals, our survey adds to a host of evidence that doctors and other healthcare professionals are facing a rising tide of abuse from frustrated patients.

"The pandemic has been a tremendously challenging time for all, but it is never acceptable for healthcare professionals to be abused in the course of their work. This is particularly the case given the immense sacrifices they have made to care for patients during the pandemic. Facing abuse can also be an added strain on doctors’ mental health and wellbeing at a time when they are already under immense pressure.

“There needs to be an open and frank public conversation about the current challenges facing the NHS. Legitimate concerns need to be listened to, but patient expectations also need to be managed. Government and healthcare leaders need to properly support those on the frontline doing their utmost for patients at this challenging time. They need to act on those concerns and manage expectations. Healthcare professionals deserve everyone’s support and understanding as the NHS seeks to recover from the height of the crisis.”