A new study has used social media posts to understand the impact of the Covid pandemic on general practice, finding that some GPs felt that they were ‘viewed as lower priority compared with hospital staff.’
The research carried out by the University of York and funded by the NIHCR examined nearly 100,000 social media posts by NHS GPs to ‘identify matters that were important to them’ during the first year of the pandemic.
The authors observed that online discussions at the start of the pandemic centred around lack of PPE and testing, leading to anxiety about GPs’ safety and the safety of their families, with some GPs feeling that they were viewed as lower priority compared with hospital staff.
Some GPs resigned themselves to ‘inevitably’ catching Covid and some talked about ‘living in fear of unknowingly passing it on to my family and loved ones,’ particularly more vulnerable family members.
Others described a ‘tsunami’ in workload and lack of resources, leaving many feeling ‘fatigued’ or ‘exhausted’, and ‘heartbroken’ by patient deaths and social isolation during the pandemic.
The study also said that sentiments moved on to expressions of ‘low morale and feeling undervalued,’ exacerbated by a perceived lack of support from the Government, the media and the general public – referred to by many as ‘GP bashing’.
Dr Su Golder, one of the authors of the study and associate professor at the university’s Department of Health Sciences, told Pulse that GPs also referred to work pressures as ‘unbearable,’ stating that they felt ‘completely overwhelmed’, and some perceived an impact on their mental health.
She said: ‘Our research found that many GPs expressed feelings of being unappreciated by the Government and the public, and sadness about media portrayals of them.
‘Using a mixed methods approach, we were able to explore the nature of these comments, as well as the strength of feeling from a large dataset and time trends.
‘Public perceptions were viewed as being exacerbated by GPs being accused of being “closed” and references to GP bashing.
‘We noticed time trends in these comments, for example with peaks during a period following NHS England letters to practices to “reopen.”’
Dr Golder also said that GPs were also concerned about some aspects of remote consultations, particularly about possible missed diagnoses, widening health inequalities and the increased time and staff fatigue associated with remote consultations.
She added: ‘It is difficult to engage busy healthcare professionals in research such as interviews or surveys.
‘During the start of the pandemic health professionals were inundated with information and surveys attempting to glean more information that would help support the pandemic response.
‘Yet during the Covid 19 pandemic, gaining their perspectives had never been more important.
‘Even before the pandemic, rising demands on UK GPs, including increasing complexity and intensity of work and difficulties in recruitment and retention, led to reports of a service “in crisis”.’
Dr Laura Jefferson, a research fellow at the department who also worked on the study, said: ‘They felt job satisfaction, team working and access to much-needed emotional support, were all reduced by remote working.
‘Problems contacting patients were common and working from home brought about additional challenges, especially for those with children.’
Perceptions that GP practices were ‘closed’ and some cases of abuse from patients caused sadness among GPs who described working harder than ever.
The study concluded that perceived workload pressures, unsafe working practices, lack of support and unfavourable media commentaries during this time were ‘detrimental to GPs’ wellbeing and this could affect GP retention and future patient care.’
The paper, published in the Health Information & Libraries Journal, said: ‘These factors detrimentally impact on GPs, leading to issues with GP retention and capacity issues the effects of which are now being felt in terms of patient care and unmet needs.
‘Further research evaluating interventions that seek to support GPs is needed, to alleviate some of the pressing issues around workforce capacity and encourage GP retention.
‘The pandemic not only exacerbates the time pressures, but survey fatigue among this professional group during this time also reduced research participation.
‘As a result, social media analysis provided a valuable tool to explore GPs views and experiences first-hand. The method also provides information in real-time, without interviewer bias.’