The pandemic saw a drop in calls to medical defence organisation MDDUS during the pandemic, but ’emotionally charged’ calls from doctors seeking legal advice on Covid matters took nearly a third longer than usual.
The MDDUS’s annual report for 2020 revealed there was a 19% drop in the overall number of calls compared with 2019 – to 10,131 – but the conversations took 29% more time, totalling 1,742 hours.
Meanwhile, the time spent providing written advice via emails or letters increased by 7.4% compared with the previous year – to 3,141 hours.
Doctors contacted the MDDUS about issues ranging from patient safety concerns to ‘confusing or absent protocols and conflicting national guidance’.
Shortly after the first lockdown in 2020, doctors began to receive patient complaints about access to medical care, said the MDDUS’s report.
‘Those who made contact with us shared their concerns about the potential breakdown in the professional relationship between doctor and patient because of the rapid switch away from face-to-face consultation,’ it said.
‘Our advice line also provided support on concerns about access to appropriate PPE, which was a real source of anxiety and further exacerbated by the deaths of healthcare staff from Covid-19,’ the report later added.
Advice and membership phonelines serving both doctors and dentists were under most pressure in April 2020, during the first pandemic wave, when there was ‘five times the usual contact level’ expected.
The number of UK GPs joining the MDDUS rose by 4.8% compared with 2019, while the organisation’s overall membership rose by 2.6%.
The MDDUS said that ‘from the often long and emotionally-charged conversations we have had across the advice line, our team was left with a shared impression of doctors’ Covid-19 experience in 2020’.
It underlined the ‘common themes’ of stress, anxiety and exhaustion during many phonecalls with doctors.
It said: ‘This led to a significant number of queries about how to apply existing professional guidance to the evolving pandemic circumstances, including how to approach ethical dilemmas that were previously reserved to textbooks only.
‘Concern about wellbeing is a theme that will not diminish unless our members are given the time, training and support to recover from the impact of the pandemic.’
The organisation acknowledged the GMC’s approach of taking the circumstances of the pandemic into account when assessing fitness-to-practice cases.
Dr John Holden, the chief medical officer at MDDUS, said: ‘The entire team at MDDUS has witnessed the toll the pandemic has taken on our clinical colleagues. They became aware very early on in the pandemic that doctors were experiencing significant stresses and unparalleled exposure to trauma on the front line.
‘Long working hours in unfamiliar settings, intensified conditions, worries about PPE availability and fear of contracting Covid-19 and passing it on to their loved ones, were just some of the stressful conditions they had to endure.’
He added: ‘Calls to our advice lines early in the pandemic underlined that the fear of the unknown was immense.’
Last month the Medical Defence Union said it had seen its busiest months ever as part of a 23% increase in the number of GPs it is supporting with complaints and claims made against them – including over face-to-face appointments.
Meanwhile, figures provided exclusively to Pulse recently revealed almost 6,000 complaints were made about GPs to the health ombudsman in 2020/21, despite a pause in the complaints process last year.