Plea for patience as rising levels of abuse from patients leave dedicated NHS staff distressed and in tears

The healthcare workers who we clapped on our doorsteps last year say they are increasingly being abused by the people they work so hard to care for.

Most patients continue to be polite towards staff. However, doctors, nurses, other health professionals and support teams have reported rising levels of swearing and abusive language; threatening and aggressive behaviour; and damage to property – and are asking for patience and kindness.

The NHS does not tolerate intentionally abusive behaviour, to protect the wellbeing of staff. Too often, staff across the service are being left in tears and deeply traumatised as they seek to do their job, while patients are left shocked and distressed at witnessing incidents.

Exeter GP Dr Paul Hynam is Medical Secretary for Devon Local Medical Committee (LMC) and has seen some incidents and their impact first-hand: “We want to thank the vast majority of patients who behave politely and respectfully to our staff. I know most people would not want to cause upset to our reception staff but sadly the rudeness, sarcasm and aggression of a significant minority is having a huge impact on staff wellbeing. 

“In recent months we’ve had tomatoes, eggs and stones thrown at our windows and a patient threatening to come and infect our staff with Covid because they were unable to do what he asked.”

The LMC says that this summer 12 Devon GP practice managers gave notice in a six-week period and that abuse from patients was one of the reasons for them deciding to leave their job.

Staff in Devon’s hospitals are also reporting increased abusive behaviour from patients and their family members. This includes anger over changes to visiting restrictions, the requirement to wear a face mask or covering unless they are medically exempt, having to wait for treatment and being asked to attend Emergency Departments alone to allow social distancing.

Emergency Department consultant Dr Tony Hudson works at the Royal Devon and Exeter NHS Foundation Trust and said: “Along with the other NHS services in Devon, we continue to be extremely busy and we’re really grateful to the majority of our patients who understand the pressures we are under. Unfortunately, a small minority of people are verbally or physically abusive towards us.

“We appreciate that it can sometimes feel frustrating, but we do everything we can to get people the care they need as quickly as possible while ensuring those with the most urgent needs are prioritised. In return, we ask that people continue to be polite, patient and respectful towards us – kindness makes such a difference to our day.”

Figures from April to June show 453 recorded incidents of abuse of staff in Devon’s hospitals but many incidents are thought to be unreported.

Lucy Muchina, Regional Director, Royal College of Nursing South West is urging members to report incidents and said: “Our members and their colleagues are working under unprecedented pressures across the health service, so for them to be abused by service users and their families is not only absolutely unacceptable but also heart breaking. How some people in our communities can go so swiftly from clapping ‘the NHS’ to threatening and abusing the very people they want help from is beyond comprehension.

“Health teams, including nurses, go to work every day to do the best they can to help the people who need their services, and they are doing so at a time when demand is higher than ever. We are suffering a workforce crisis with more people leaving nursing than are joining, and abuse from the public will not help employers keep the staff we so desperately need.”

Dr Alex Degan, NHS Devon’s Primary Care Medical Director, said: “Doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers have worked tirelessly throughout the pandemic to ensure people get the care that they need and are vaccinated as soon as possible. 

“The pandemic has made it harder to see as many people face to face and increased the waits people have for planned procedures. We know that people are anxious, frustrated and may be in pain and we thank patients and their families for not venting those emotions on the people who are working so hard to help them.

“Abuse and harassment of staff can increase stress related staff sickness and lead to people leaving their jobs, we do not tolerate intentionally abusive behaviour in order to protect the health and wellbeing of our staff.”

People who abuse or harass staff may be asked to leave and patients may be deregistered by their GP.