Fear of complaints pushing doctors to breaking point, warns MDU

Doctors fear a wave of complaints due to the difficulties of caring for patients during the pandemic, according to a new survey published today.

The survey of 1,203 doctors by leading medical defence organisation the Medical Defence Union (MDU) and GPonline found that two thirds of respondents (67%) feared facing a complaint related to the pandemic. The concern rose to 77% among GPs and over a third (38%) of primary care doctors had already received a complaint related to the pandemic.

Doctors said the commonest reasons for patient dissatisfaction were increased waiting times for treatments, delays in accessing routine screening and tests, communication difficulties and consulting with patients online.

While 87% of doctors said patients had been understanding about the changes they had had to make, some doctors reported feeling that public sympathy with the difficulties caused by the pandemic was wearing thin. The survey also found that 43% of GPs and 34% of doctors overall had faced abuse from patients.

Dr Caroline Fryar, MDU head of advisory services, said:

"Healthcare professionals are dealing with a wave of complaints from frustrated patients waiting for treatment or further investigations because of the pandemic. The MDU has supported members with 3,500 complaints and adverse incidents since the first lockdown in March 2020. Patients have, on the whole, been understanding, and doctors need to respond to all complaints in a thorough and compassionate way. However, with the latest NHS England figures showing that in December, over 220,000 people had been waiting for more than a year to start treatment, these cases are likely to be the tip of the iceberg.

"It's concerning that many of the complaints have the potential to become claims for compensation in the years ahead, something which 60% of doctors told us they were worried about. The stress of dealing with complaints and claims far into the future could push many doctors to breaking point. It could lead to an exodus of healthcare professionals at a time when the NHS will be depending on experienced staff to get through the backlog of cases. A quarter of doctors surveyed who had been involved in a past investigation had considered leaving clinical practice or had left.

"We are calling on the government to take action to shield healthcare staff from litigation against the NHS caused by the pandemic. Claims are indemnified by the state, but are still complex, time consuming and stressful for those involved."

What doctors told us:

"I am now more worried that I will make a mistake, because of being so busy."

"At the start of the pandemic people were supportive but as time has gone on, people are becoming more frustrated. I think the claims will come as a result."

"I am constantly exhausted and finding it very hard. It's such a hard time to start working as a junior doctor as we are under so much pressure. It's very demoralising and has been hard to keep going into work."

"Many people are working far outside their comfort zones and being transferred to other areas. Will NHS indemnity cover and defend well-meaning and stretched healthcare professionals?"

The MDU surveyed 748 GPs, consultants and hospital doctors (a 20% response rate) in January and February 2021 and GPonline surveyed 455 GPs in February 2021.

This page was correct at publication on 15/02/2021. Any guidance is intended as general guidance for members only. If you are a member and need specific advice relating to your own circumstances, please contact one of our advisers.