By Steve Nowottny
Exclusive: GPs and practice staff face widespread harassment and increasing levels of violence, with assaults in surgeries up by a fifth since 2008, a Pulse investigation reveals.
Crime statistics gathered from police forces across the UK lay bare the dangers now facing GPs, with attacks involving knives, baseball bats and even a sawn-off shotgun.
Of 52 police forces approached by Pulse, 30 gave details of crimes at GP surgeries. Many larger forces, including the Metropolitan Police, were unable to provide figures.
Across the 30 forces, assaults against GPs, practice staff and patients rose from 109 in 2008 to 119 in 2009 and 130 in 2010 – a 19% increase. Yet the UK’s overall levels of violent crime fell by 4% from 2008/9 to 2009/10.
Weapons used in attacks on GPs, staff or patients include a baseball bat, air gun, cosh, bottle, knives and even a bowling ball, while in Craigavon, Northern Ireland, a sawn-off shotgun was used in an armed robbery.
Leicestershire police reported eight assaults on GPs since 2007, including six last year. There were also four assaults on nurses, 19 on receptionists and seven on patients.
Devon and Cornwall police recorded 32 crimes where GPs or staff were victims, including 11 in 2010. In Norfolk, one GP was threatened with a kitchen knife and another grabbed by the throat during a consultation.
There were also 300 burglaries a year at GP surgeries, some involving theft of drugs. Alarmingly, there were 32 sexual assaults since 2007, from a nurse in Stevenage whose ‘buttocks were patted’ to a sexual assault ‘by penetration’ in a Hull surgery. Police in Northern Ireland reported an ‘indecent assault on a female child’ at a Londonderry practice, while Sussex police recorded two sexual assaults on girls under the age of 13.
An accompanying Pulse survey of more than 300 GPs found 20% had witnessed physical violence from a patient, 9% sexual harassment and 19% racial abuse at their surgery. Crimes resulted in minor injuries to GPs and staff, amid mounting concern over safety in primary care. In 2007, Glasgow GP Dr Helen Jackson was seriously injured after being stabbed in the stomach in her surgery.
Dr Ruth Clery, a GP in Croydon, said there had been an attack in her surgery three weeks ago: ‘My registrar had someone with her who’d been a psychiatric patient but had been fine for nine months. They were chatting, then the patient suddenly got very violent and tried slapping her around the head.’
Dr Clery said when a new patient was allocated, the practice often wasn’t told why until the notes arrived, which could take weeks: ‘If you’re taking on a violent patient you need to know because you may need to put in extra security.’
A Brighton GP, who asked not to be named, said her practice had increased staffing and introduced zero tolerance posters after a violent incident: ‘Now we have two receptionists. It’s very difficult to phone for help when you’re being attacked.’
Dr Richard Vautrey, deputy chair of the GPC, said the increase in numbers of incidents was ‘very worrying’ and speculated it could be linked to ‘an increase in patients with stress-related illnesses’ due to the difficult economic conditions.
He said all primary care organisations were supposed to inform practices if they were allocated a violent patient under the Violent Patient Scheme, but said it relied on GPs informing the scheme about incidents.
A new Government body, NHS Protect, was launched last week, but does not hold specific figures on crimes in surgeries. It said: ‘Tools such as the NHS lone worker service, conflict resolution training and guidance around security of prescriptions have been developed.’
Dr Ruth Clery and Dr Eleanor Smith Map: Crime in GP surgeries
View GPs and practice staff hit in rise by violent crime in a larger map