'I'm not paranoid, but my camera is at hand'
Dr Stephen Wedderburn keeps a disposable camera in the glove compartment of his car.
It is not to take snaps of the countryside, but in case his worst nightmare recurs. For Dr Wedderburn, a GP in Aberdeen, this comes in the guise of a female stalker who became so obsessed with him she was jailed. If she does turn up again, Dr Wedderburn intends to take photographs as evidence. He is one of an unlucky few GPs who end up being tormented by their patients. The woman in his case mistakenly believed Dr Wedderburn reciprocated her feelings for him. In January 2005 she was given a three-month prison sentence for breaching the peace. She had repeatedly followed the GP in her car, flashing the lights and sounding the horn.'I don't think I'm paranoid by keeping the camera, but if something happens I will have a picture with the time and date on it,' says Dr Wedderburn. He advises other GPs suffering harassment to log incidents with times and dates, tell colleagues, and seek support from a medical defence organisation.Since the case, he has insisted on the presence of a chaperone for all intimate examinations of female patients. 'I have had patients who say they don't need a chaperone, but they know what I have been through so they have one anyway,' he says. 'I do wonder sometimes whether I'm getting the chaperone for the patient's benefit or my own.'His precautionary approach is understandable, considering the ordeal he and his family suffered.'This woman used to follow my daughter when she was walking the dog,' he says.The RCGP says a GP is justified in removing a patient from a practice if there is physical violence, sexual or racial harassment, or inappropriate emotional attachment to the doctor.But the college also asks GPs to consider why the apparent harassment has started. An overstressed GP or a receptionist with poor communication skills could be to blame.A patient may have mental illness, says Dr Emma Cuzner, medicolegal adviser at the MDU. 'If patients are unwell, their clinical care must not be jeopardised,' she says.
Australian consultant psychiatrist Dr Michael Pathè found from police records that one in 11 of all stalking cases involved GPs. They typically featured excessive numbers of phone calls, emails, letters, unsolicited gifts, and complaints of professional misconduct.
Cambridgeshire GP Dr Wendy Harrison knows this well. Last week Pulse reported how a former patient bombarded her with hate mail. The patient was given a suspended jail sentence, having terrorised the GP for three years.Dr Harrison told Pulse: 'It is difficult to put into words the overwhelming effect this had on me, the practice and the family.'Many stalkers develop romantic or child-like attachments to GPs and have hopes for a relationship. In other cases, patients harass GPs because they blame them for a relative dying, says the Medical Protection Society (MPS). In one case a man stood in a public place with a placard describing a GP as 'Dr Death'. Over the past 12 years the MPS has helped five to 10 GPs take action against harassers or stalkers, though most cases are settled without court hearings.GPs suffering at the hands of their patients are advised not to let cases spiral out of control and act quickly to report them.The MDU has also warned of another danger factor in harassment cases, pointing out that such situations can cause GPs to begin modifying their practice. It cites the case of a newly qualified female GP who avoided visiting a male patient at night following a string of incidents at her surgery, including him asking intimate questions and waiting for her outside. The GP did not respond to the callout, fearing he had an ulterior motive. In fact, the man, who had complained of being breathless, had been having a heart attack. He survived after managing to stagger to a neighbour's house. The GP was reported to the GMC.Whatever the result of a harassment case, the effect on GPs extends well beyond a court case, as Dr Wedderburn's decision to carry a camera shows. He says: 'My concern is whether it will just start again after the restriction order ends.'
Advice for GPs being harassed• Store any gifts given by the patient and log all incidents of harassment with times and dates• Seek free legal advice from the NHS's Security Management Service via a PCT• Be assertive but fair in deterring patients who are acting inappropriately• Assess whether the patient's actions are a result of mental illness• Find another GP for the patientSources: MDU and MPS