Pallavi Bradshaw: Abuse against doctors leaves a bitter taste 

General Practitioners at a practice in Bristol went to work this week to find offensive graffiti on the wall of their surgery, in foot-high letters. The message from the graffiti was clear; doctors don’t care about us.

In “normal” times, abusive graffiti like this would make any doctor shudder; we have all had our share of disgruntled patients and know that occasionally things can get out of hand. But during covid-19 times, amid extreme pressure, the image has conjured an array of emotions—anger, sadness and disillusionment—for the whole medical profession.

The graffiti image from the Bristol practice, and the language used within it, captured the media headlines—but many doctors have been experiencing abuse throughout the pandemic. In fact, a Medical Protection Society (MPS) survey of 1250 doctors, shows that 1 in 3 have suffered either verbal or physical abuse from patients or patients’ relatives.

Worryingly, a further 7% say they have experienced verbal or physical abuse from a member of the public outside of a medical setting.

Many doctors commented on their experiences anonymously in the survey, and these made for difficult reading. A few told us they had experienced abuse at the supermarket, with one saying they had been sworn at for using the NHS queue which was shorter.

Another doctor told how they were assaulted by the son of a patient, who couldn’t see his mother who was in hospital. 

And one doctor told us about a 5-day backlog of swab results in wave 1, meaning patients with suspected covid-19 had to be transferred to a query covid-19 ward. Families were accusing the doctor “of killing their vulnerable relative.” The doctor said the hate and blame still haunt them now.

The comments from GPs in the survey are equally sobering, and the common thread is frustration at the public perception that GP practices have not been open or are not offering enough face-to-face appointments, when they are on their knees and face-to-face appointments have increased in recent months. One GP said there is too much verbal abuse to mention, with another saying they feel like “GP land is the kick bucket for the NHS.”

While this is an unsettling and extremely stressful time for the public, it is sad and simply unacceptable to think that 1 in 3 doctors who go to work every day in the most challenging circumstances, putting patients first, face abuse. Not only in the workplace but pervading into their home life. 

Abuse presents yet another source of anxiety for doctors at a time when many have expressed grave concerns about their mental wellbeing and were burnt out even before covid-19. In our survey 2 in 5 doctors say their mental wellbeing is worse compared to the start of the pandemic.

For most doctors, covid-19 will be the biggest health crisis in our careers, with countless patients and colleagues lost. Without support to address an array of mental wellbeing concerns—including those caused by verbal and physical abuse—doctors are at risk of becoming disillusioned or will suffer in silence with psychological injuries—both of which put the safety of themselves and their patients at risk. 

The NHS people plan, published in July, set out some credible support initiatives, but we need to see more concrete commitment to their implementation—through the support of central government funding. Those working in private healthcare settings must also be supported.

The clapping for our heroes feels like a distant memory, and we now need more than symbolic gestures.

Pallavi Bradshaw is medicolegal lead in the Risk Prevention department at the Medical Protection Society.

Competing interests: The MPS provides the right to request access to expert advice and support on clinical negligence claims, complaints, GMC investigations, disciplinaries, inquests, and criminal charges such as gross negligence manslaughter. This article was not commissioned.