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How GP Practices Can Safeguard Their Staff

Over the last 12 months, abuse from patients has increased, with patients displaying threatening and physically violent behaviour towards practice staff. The abuse is also extended to social media, with some patients leaving abusive comments online. In situations like these, it’s important to know how to protect and safeguard your practice staff.

The extent of the abuse

Since 2017, criminal acts of violence against GP practice staff have almost doubled as demand rises and staff shortages become greater. While suffering occupational violence is high among other healthcare professions, it is found to be much higher towards GPs. Since the COVID-19 pandemic, abuse and threatening behaviour incidents have been rapidly escalating when it comes to frequency and severity.

According to the BMA, half of GPs have reported facing verbal abuse with one in five being threatened and 67% witnessing violence against other practice staff. In 2017-18, there were under 600 criminal acts of violence, but between 2021-22, there were over 1000 criminal acts of violence, a figure that is steadily rising as practices struggle to retain staff and demand becomes greater.

Social media abuse is also becoming commonplace, with patients leaving harmful comments and written abuse online to purposely upset, bully and threaten practice staff. This is not acceptable face-to-face and shouldn’t be acceptable online.

How COVID and staff shortages have exacerbated the situation

It is no surprise that the pandemic has worsened abuse in surgeries as services face even more pressure than usual, with four in five GPs saying that the abuse worsened during the pandemic. High demand and delayed appointments caused frustration, with some patients believing that some services had shut down completely during the pandemic thanks to false rhetoric created by the media. Not only that, but the Covid Vaccination Programme has also prompted abuse from the public towards practice staff, with 52% of practice staff facing abuse. The Medical Protection Society (MPS) also found that 53% of staff said their surgery or centre had been defaced by anti-vaccination material. During the first year of the pandemic, assaults from patients resulting in injury rose to 182, a figure that had doubled since 2017-18.

Staff shortages have exacerbated abuse aimed at staff too. In 2015, the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, pledged to hire 5,000 more GPs within 5 years, and in the 2019 Conservative manifesto, they also pledged to hire 6,000 more GPs by 2024, a figure ex Health Secretary Sajid Javid said they were unlikely to meet. With staff shortages comes the difficulty of patients not being given appointments or waiting a long period of time for one, ultimately causing frustration towards practice staff, but in turn, abuse against staff could also see them quitting and looking for a new role elsewhere.

Safeguarding your staff

General practice is under pressure more than ever. Unsurprisingly, there could be occasions when patients want something that cannot be delivered and in most cases, this is when the abuse from patients will begin. During these situations, it’s important to know what you can do to safeguard and support your staff in these situations.

It’s not uncommon for practice staff to say that abuse ‘is part of the job’, but this shouldn’t be the case, and abuse in any form should not be tolerated. Abuse against practice staff can lead to unhealthy stress levels, worry about attending work, and could affect mental health. When this happens, practice staff are more likely to take sick leave or to leave their job entirely. It’s understandable that practices want to do their best to protect their staff, but it’s also a legal obligation to protect their health, safety, and welfare while they are at work. There are ways in which you can safeguard your staff, these include:

  • Identifying the cause of stress: Stress Indicator Tools are a good way of identifying what your practice staff may be stressed about. Obtaining this information will allow you to know the areas which your staff are most worried about, therefore allowing you to improve and prevent work-related stress. The Practice Tool for Addressing Stress in the Workplace available within our policies library may be able to help you and your staff.
  • Look at what’s currently in place to protect the welfare of your staff: Making sure you have policies in place for dealing with abuse from patients is vital, and ensuring that any policies you have in place are working to protect your staff. Within our policies library, the Violence and Aggression Policy may be able to help you and your practice when faced with any abuse.
  • Make plans for improvement: After taking the first two steps, you could then begin to look at what you could do to improve the situation. This could include talking to partners, practice staff, and managers to open up a conversation on areas they think could be improved and how.

The NHS is recognising the impact and issues abuse and stress can have on staff and has created a resource to help staff in these situations. The ‘Looking After You’ programme offers coaching sessions with a skilled and experienced coach for those working in primary care. They will listen, ask questions, and support staff through any situation they may be experiencing.

 


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