Violence at health centres and GP surgeries ‘almost doubles in five years’

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Incidents of violence at health centres and GP surgeries have almost doubled in five years, according to figures.

Public order offences including threatening behaviour have also increased and incidents of stalking and harassment at GP surgeries have almost tripled, the data reported by the BMJ showed.

Abuse of medical staff is “entirely unacceptable”, chairman of the Royal College of GPs Professor Martin Marshall said, as he called on the Government to “urgently” deliver on its manifesto pledge to increase the number of GPs and practice staff.

He said that while doctors understand patients’ frustrations about accessing care, “this is not the fault of GPs and our teams – the real issue, is a shortage of GPs and other practice staff”.

The British Medical Association (BMA) said the figures make for “alarming reading” and urged the Government to be “open and honest with the public” that there are severe shortages of GPs and a lack of capacity to meet record demand.

The BMJ said its data – from freedom of information requests to UK police forces – showed that of the 32 out of 45 forces which were able to provide complete and comparable data for the past five years, 1,068 incidents of violence at health centres and GP surgeries occurred in 2021-22.

This is up from 791 the previous year and 586 in 2017-18, the journal reported.

There were 182 assaults resulting in injury last year, the highest for five years and almost double the 98 recorded in 2017-18, the BMJ said.

Recorded incidents of stalking and harassment at GP surgeries have almost tripled over five years, with 223 instances last year compared with 85 in 2017-18.

Incidents of malicious communications – which can include sending letters or emails – increased from 25 in 2017-18 to 92 last year.

Public order offences such as threatening behaviour rose from 438 to 541, up from 387 five years ago.

Prof Marshall said the findings “need to be taken seriously”.

He said increased levels of abuse “will be having a significant impact on the mental health, wellbeing and morale of individual doctors and practice staff”.

He added: “This, alongside the intense pressures GPs and our teams are working under, and sustained media and political scrutiny of our new ways of working since the pandemic, are undoubtedly contributing to some people evaluating whether they’re able to continue working in general practice.

“There may be many reasons why a patient may express aggressive behaviour, none of which are acceptable.

“We understand and share our patients’ frustrations when they struggle to access timely and appropriate GP care. But this is not the fault of GPs and our teams – the real issue is a shortage of GPs and other practice staff, meaning our workforce is not big enough to manage the increasing health needs of our patients.

“This was the case before the pandemic, and has only been exacerbated by the crisis. The Government made a manifesto pledge of an additional 6,000 GPs by 2024 – plus 26,000 additional practice staff – and we urgently need these numbers to be delivered so that we can safely deliver the care and services that our patients need, now and in the future.”

Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA chairman of council, said it is “no surprise that patients are having difficulties with access and appointments” but cited the cause as “a lack of capacity and lack of historic investment in general practice”.

He said: “We fundamentally need the Government to be open and honest with the public that the real reason patients don’t have the level of service they deserve is fundamentally due to the fact we have severe shortages of GPs and a lack of capacity to meet record demand.

“We also need ministers to make clear to the public that there will be zero tolerance to abuse, violence and threats against GPs and their staff, and that swift action will be taken against any offenders.”

A spokesperson for the Department of Health said security measures including CCTV, panic buttons and screens at reception have been rolled out across GP surgeries.

They said: “Deliberate violence or abuse directed at NHS staff, who continue to work tirelessly to provide care, is unacceptable – all staff, including GPs and their teams, deserve to work in a safe and secure environment.

“The NHS violence reduction programme aims to protect the workforce and ensure offenders are punished quickly and effectively, and the Government has taken action to support this – including by passing legislation to double the maximum sentence for assaults on emergency workers, including those in the NHS.”

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