More than half of UK doctors have seen or experienced abuse by patients or their relatives in the last year, including incidents in which they have been spat at and threatened.
Doctors have variously had their hair ripped out, been backed up against a wall and been racially abused, a survey and dossier of testimonies collated by a medical organisation has revealed.
Long delays for care and staff shortages are cited as the main triggers for what NHS leaders say is an increased readiness by the public to be aggressive towards frontline staff.
The research by the Medical Protection Society (MPS) found that 56% of the doctors questioned had experienced or witnessed a situation involving verbal or physical abuse over the last year.
Almost half said incidents had occurred because of a lack of staff, while 45% blamed it on patients’ frustration at having to wait a long time to be treated.
One doctor told the MPS how a “patient’s partner threatened to kill me as he felt his wife had waited too long to be seen”, while another said: “I had a handful of my hair ripped out despite the patient being in handcuffs and with the police.”
A third described being “backed up against a wall by parents who wanted better nursing for their child in intensive care. We literally had no staff.”
Another said: “I was physically and verbally abused by a patient because of the time they would have to wait for their operation.”
Prof Jane Dacre, the president of the MPS, said that while staff shortages and long waits could be “frustrating and stressful” for patients and their families, frontline personnel were “doing their best in very difficult circumstances”.
She said: “While many patient interactions are positive, it is distressing that so many healthcare workers face daily verbal and physical abuse from patients, including being spat at and threatened.”
GPs as well as hospital doctors have been targets of abuse, with frustration at getting appointments a common trigger.
One family doctor recounted how there was “daily abuse of reception staff about lack of appointments and regular anger to GPs from relatives and patients about secondary [hospital] care and primary [GP] care waiting times”.
A second GP said: “Aggressive, abusive language and behaviour [is] often directed at the reception team.”
Dr Latifa Patel, the British Medical Association’s workforce lead, said underfunding of and understaffing in the NHS by the Conservatives had left it “a shadow of its former self” and unable to give patients who were often in pain and distress the care they need quickly enough.
“However, I urge the public not to take out their exasperation on doctors or our colleagues who share the same frustrations and are acutely aware that waiting times are too long,” she said.
Concern about aggression directed at emergency workers led the government to double the maximum sentence for people convicted of assaulting them.
Alarm about abuse of staff led health service leaders in London to warn in an open letter last year that “tens of thousands of staff and colleagues working in the NHS in London are confronted with violence and aggression from patients and members of the public simply for going to work. Now the abuse is at a dangerous level.”
Three in 10 doctors think the police do not take such incidents seriously enough, the MPS’s survey of 861 doctors across the UK found.
A spokesperson for the Department of Health and Social Care said: “Violence or misconduct of any kind is unacceptable and has no place in the NHS.”
The growing abuse has led some NHS care providers to issue staff with bodyworn cameras to deter and record aggression, and others to hire extra security staff and install CCTV.