Northumberland health chiefs condemn 'unacceptable' verbal abuse of staff in GP practices
Health chiefs have revealed that frontline staff at doctors’ surgeries in Northumberland are being subjected to verbal abuse on a daily basis from frustrated patients.
GP practices have been busier than ever in recent months as they attempt to handle the large backlog of cases which built up during the pandemic combined with the on-going Covid and flu vaccine rollout.
But that is no excuse for some of the ‘unacceptable’ behaviour seen at some practices, says Dr Graham Syers, GP at Alnwick Medical Group and chairman of Northumberland Clinical Commissioning Group.
He revealed: “On a daily basis patients are likely to give some form of verbal abuse to our receptionists.
"Please remember they are genuinely trying their best to help. It’s just not acceptable for our patients to be abusive. If they are, we have to take steps to protect our staff.
“When somebody becomes frustrated or angry it’s no different from unacceptable behaviour in any other walk of life.
"At times it seems like our teams become the focus of the frustration people have with the whole world just now."
Dr Jane Lothian, lead officer Northumberland Local Medical Committee, added: “On the whole we have a pretty respectful population. The people on the front desk are living and working in Alnwick, Berwick, Rothbury or wherever. They are part of the community and let’s remember that we are very lucky with the quality of general practices we’ve got.”
However, they acknowledge that many GP practices are struggling with their workload.
“It’s probably busier than we’ve ever been,” said Dr Syers. “It’s a combination of all sorts that’s leading to that.
"There are probably still some people who have saved things up during Covid, there are still things happening to do with Covid vaccines and the effects of Covid but, also, we have an ageing population and Northumberland proportionately has a lot of older people and they tend to be on more medicines, have more problems and greater needs.”
Winter pressures will put more strain on the system so patients are being asked to do their bit.
"The system is coping but we will have some challenges this winter,” said Dr Lothian.
Dr Syers added: “A lot of winter readiness is about asking people to get prepared themselves; get your flu jab and Covid booster and have a first aid kit for winter illnesses at home and see your pharmacist.
"We’re open as usual but need to make sure everyone keeps their end of the bargain and then we can see the ones we really need to see.
"Ultimately we want to do the very best that we can but we also need to be as safe as we can. Part of it is protecting our patients but part of it is also protecting our staff.
"Practices might have procedures in place, for example, for patients wearing a mask in the surgery. It’s still an important thing from our perspective, especially if you’ve got frail and elderly people sitting in the waiting rooms.
"People are falling out of the habit of it but in healthcare environments it’s still really valued. You might not feel you need it but think about the other people around you.”
The number of face-to-face appointments has been in the national spotlight in recent days.
Nationally, 58% of patients were seen face-to-face in August - the first full month following the ending of restrictions. That compares with 54% in January and over 80% before the pandemic.
But the NHS data reveals that, in August, 59.88% of appointments in the Northumberland CCG area were face-to-face or home visits with 38.28% done remotely. In January 2021 those figures were 58.09% and 40.51% respectively while, in January 2020, they were 75.93% and 22.36%.
“Face-to-face appointments have always been available and if it’s felt that someone needs to be seen face-to-face practices have all worked out ways of doing that,” explained Dr Syers.
"We have moved towards trying to work out what is more convenient to people and this can work both ways from a patient perspective and a doctor perspective. We try to be everything to everybody so there are some people would much rather have a phone call and some would rather have email consultation.”
Dr Lothian added: This move to different types of consultation has been going on for a decade. I think people hadn’t realised until Covid came but actually all our practices were moving to a variety of consultation methods, online and phone, but Covid has sped things up.
“At the end of the day, a GP isn’t the right person for everything. Practices are putting a lot of effort and investment into frontline reception and admin staff and nursing to help them help patients go to the right person the first time. Sometimes people want to see a doctor and feel short-changed if they don’t but actually we’re trying to get someone to the right person.”
The autumn coughs and colds season is presenting its own challenges.
“We are seeing more people with coughs and colds at the minute and obviously there is a challenge because we’re not sure how many of those might be Covid and how many aren’t so we’re having to manage it slightly differently,” said Dr Syers.
He said there had also been an unseasonably early number of children with respiratory tract infections.
Meanwhile, Dr Lothian called for anyone who has not had a Covid vaccination to book an appointment.
“All the practices are keeping their offers open so people who want a vaccine can have one,” she said. “There has been a bit of a fall-off but on the whole we’ve got pretty good vaccination rates.”