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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Andrew Gregory Health editor

GPs tell of ‘appalling’ abuse as violence at UK surgeries worsens

General practitioners say abuse from patients affects both practice staff as well as the care they can give to other patients.
General practitioners say abuse from patients affects both practice staff as well as the care they can give to other patients. Photograph: ChristianChan/Getty Images/iStockphoto

The number of violent incidents at general practices in the UK recorded by the police has almost doubled in the last five years, according to an investigation by the BMJ.

GP leaders say “appalling” assaults, harassment and other forms of abuse aimed at doctors and their staff have worsened during the pandemic, as surgeries came under growing pressure and sections of the media perpetuated the false notion that services were “closed”.

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, chair of the British Medical Association, told the Guardian that the rising tide of violence had left GPs and their staff increasingly “afraid and at risk of being verbally or physically abused”.

Here, three GPs from across the UK speak openly about the growing threat of violence.

Alan Stout
GP Alan Stout said staff at his practice were experiencing increasing levels of abuse. Photograph: BMA News

Alan Stout, a GP in east Belfast and chair of the Northern Ireland general practitioners committee

It began with a phone consultation – a patient was looking for additional medication.

He got progressively more aggressive throughout the course of the conversation, and it culminated in him saying that he was coming down to the practice there and then and he was going to hurt somebody.

So we locked the front door. The staff were in the reception and office area. There was only one doctor on [duty] at the time, and he was in his consulting room.

The individual then appeared, kicked the locked front door down and stormed in, and then started attacking the door and the window to the reception where the reception staff were.

At this point the doctor had to lock themself in their room. The police were contacted and subsequently arrived, and he was then arrested.

We are getting increasing aggression and abuse on phones and then also on occasion in person at the practice as well. It absolutely has an effect on our practice and staff. We now keep the door to reception locked at all times.

Also, quite frustratingly, we have ended up closing for an hour over lunchtime, predominantly to protect our staff. We had tried very hard to remain open at all times throughout the day, but by doing that we were reducing the number who were there [at lunchtime], and they were in a very exposed position.

Richard Fairclough, a GP partner at Riverside Medical Practice in Musselburgh, East Lothian

We recently needed to take the hard decision to remove the names and photos of our staff from our website, because some of them had been targeted by an anonymous Twitter user.

Thankfully, we haven’t seen the extreme, horrifying abuse that some staff at some other surgeries have experienced, but nonetheless there has been a very real impact on our team, which does then have a knock-on impact on the care we can give to our other patients.

On a day-to-day basis we have seen members of our call team being very upset, and we think that abuse by patients – tied with unprecedented demand as we exited the first lockdown – did contribute to us losing a substantial number of team members from our call team back in late 2020.

There’s a very real mismatch between patient demand and capacity in health services right across the country, and that’s what this is about, ultimately. If patients could get the healthcare they needed quickly and easily, every time, I have no doubt that abuse would decrease.

Adam Janjua
Dr Adam Janjua said a patient threatened to stab him. Photograph: BMA News

Adam Janjua, a GP in Fleetwood, Lancashire

In the past two to three years, we have seen a huge rise in incidents. I have never seen it like this. The most recent time that we had to call the police was in a row over a person not wearing a mask. They shoved me in the chest. I’m quite a big guy, but if it had been someone else he could have done some real damage.

I have had a person threaten to come down and stab me when I least expect it. We have had to update our zero-tolerance signs to add “intimidation”. Staff feel very mentally drained each day.

We have a lot of abuse over the phone, people saying things like, “You don’t actually do anything”. Most GPs don’t report these types of incidents to the police, as they don’t want to get tied up in red tape and it can take a long time.

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