Portsmouth area GP staff treated as 'punchbags' as patients abuse workers 'relentlessly'

ANGRY patients are treating GP surgery staff as ‘punching bags’ by unleashing tirades of abuse on a daily basis.
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Receptionists in Portsmouth have been left in tears with as many as one in five calls at a busy practice involving screaming, shouting or unpleasant behaviour.

Several patients have been ‘frog-marched’ out of surgery buildings - although most of the abuse has been on the phone.

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One GP said it was ‘relentless’ with a ‘drip, drip, drip’ effect. Medics say the problem has hit morale and risks staff going sick or quitting.

Carly Hobbs, operations manager at Portsdown Group Practice, with GP Dr Sarah Swindells. Picture: Ben FishwickCarly Hobbs, operations manager at Portsdown Group Practice, with GP Dr Sarah Swindells. Picture: Ben Fishwick
Carly Hobbs, operations manager at Portsdown Group Practice, with GP Dr Sarah Swindells. Picture: Ben Fishwick

In recorded calls heard by The News, one patient was heard screaming: ‘It’ll be on your head when I die.’

Another aggressively said they would go to the surgery to ‘sort this... problem out’.

Many went from seemingly calm to a shouting, swearing, aggressive fury in a split second after being told they cannot get an appointment.

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In some cases patients have threatened to burn down surgeries if they cannot get an appointment.

GP Dr Sarah Swindells, from the Portsdown Group Practice, said: ‘We’re trying to help... this behaviour is unacceptable.’

She added: ‘We just don’t want our staff to go home in tears.’

Both the Portsdown and Trafalgar Medical Group Practice have spoken out about the upset caused by angry patients taking out their frustrations on staff.

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Nurse manager Sam King, based at Eastney Health Centre in the Trafalgar group of surgeries, said primary care is seeing a ‘peak’ now with winter pressure, Covid boosters and flu jabs to tackle.

‘We haven't been sitting on our hands doing nothing,’ she said. ‘Then to get the abuse to deal with on top of that is really draining.’

She estimates the around 11 receptionists at Osborne Road and Eastney take up to 700 calls a day, with one in five being abusive. A new phone system is soon being installed.

Portsdown receives up to 900 calls a day, with a team of 12-15 answering them in a contact centre.

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The two practices have around 83,000 patients on their books between them, and were open throughout lockdown when people rallied around the NHS.

Former A&E nurse Sam, who said staff were treated as ‘punchbags’, said: ‘The nation came together, they appreciated each other and looked out for each other.

‘Then at the end of last year we started to see a change. It was the time we started to come out of lockdown.

‘No longer did we see the patients saying “I completely understand” we’ve started getting patients saying “I’ve not seen a doctor for months and I want to see them now.

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‘They don’t want to wait three days for a prescription. They want it today.

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GP receptionist told by patient: I’ll brick your window

‘We’ve got receptionists in tears every day, patients shouting at them, saying “if I die it’s your fault” and “I want to see somebody, it’s my right to see somebody”.’

She added: ‘I’ve never questioned being a nurse but in the last year I have. I love my job - I’ve always loved my job, it’s all I’ve ever wanted to do.

‘But there are days where I think do I want to carry on? It feels like it takes a bit of you away.

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‘We all as nurses and GPs, we want to be empathetic and sympathetic, we want to be there for you but when you scream at us on the phone - like it would for anybody - it makes you not want to help, and I’ve never wanted not to help people.’

Her colleague Julie Allison, lead research nurse at the practice, added: ‘I have been nursing for 37 years and this is the worst it has been, I have already reduced my hours and am seriously considering not revalidating next year and giving it up.’

Staff have also been warned about the risk of Covid conspiracists putting razor blade-laced posters intended to injure anyone who removes them, Sam said.

Most abuse has come from frustrated patients - but anti-vaxxers have also put leaflets through the door at Eastney Health Centre threatening to take NHS staff to court for breaching the ‘Nuremberg Code’ over the life-saving Covid vaccine.

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Portsdown operations manager Carly Hobbs said screens installed at Cosham Park House Surgery have made staff feel safer.

But the problem is affecting staff. ‘I think it’s going to impact on our retention and recruitment, and sickness,’ said Ms Hobbs.

‘That’s only then going to impact our ability to answer those calls and give a response.’

She added: ‘Our staff are there to help you, it’s not okay to abuse, it’s not okay to become verbally abusive.’

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And Dr Swindells said incidents flagged by staff are just the ‘tip of the iceberg’.

Around eight warning letters have been sent to patients at their practice in recent weeks.

Bad behaviour can see patients deregistered and moved to the Special Allocation Scheme - a service for violent patients who cannot be seen in normal practices.

Patients’ anger is affecting GP staff recruitment

ABUSE aimed at GP staff is causing problems with staff recruitment and with keeping existing workers, a representative of practice managers has said.

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Ed Kennedy is the south east regional representative at The Institute of General Practice Management.

Receptionists face a ‘relentless day’ that continues again the next day, he said.

GP surgeries are working with strained resources and seeing more patients with complex health issues after many stayed away in the pandemic.

Mr Kennedy said: ‘There’s this perfect storm of demand and it’s absolutely relentless and at the same time we don’t want to blame patients, it’s actually not their fault.

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‘They want to see someone and when a receptionist says “I’m sorry there isn’t any appointments available” some of them can get angry.

‘And in some respects we can understand their anger but putting that at receptionists, doctors and nurses is exacerbating the situation and putting off people from primary care so there’s less people to help.

Mr Kennedy, managing partner at Wickham Surgery, said receptionists are asked at interviews if they are prepared for possible verbal abuse.

He said: ‘It’s got to a level where we can’t recruit people because they don’t want to work in primary care and that’s so sad.

‘It’s so sad but it’s affecting our operations.’

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He added: ‘Some of the doctors won’t be able to sustain this and they’ll cut their hours or retire early.’

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