Treatment waiting times and appointment availability leading to doctors facing abuse, MDU survey finds

Two thirds of the 418 doctors who responded to the survey said levels of abuse had increased since the start of the pandemic.

Waiting times for treatment and appointment availability, particularly in primary care, are the most common reasons for doctors to face abuse from patients, a Medical Defence Union (MDU) survey has found.

Two thirds (66%) of the 418 doctors who responded to the survey by the leading not for profit indemnifier said levels of abuse from patients and their representatives had increased since the start of the pandemic. The figure rose to 79% among GPs. One GP commented, "The public are less tolerant than I have experienced in the 39 years I have worked in General Practice."

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.

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.
  • 44% of GPs and 33% of consultants and hospital doctors had experienced bullying, abuse or harassment from patients or relatives while at work. 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. One hospital doctor commented: "I ensure I dress in civilian clothes when leaving at night and hide my badge. We have had our tyres slashed in car parks."
  • 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.
  • 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.

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."

The MDU surveyed 418 doctors in August 2021 a 6% response rate. Those responding included specialty/core trainees (32%), consultants (22%), GPs (22%) and trust grade doctors (12%).

This page was correct at publication on 02/09/2021. 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.