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‘You can never feel completely safe again’

I can see 30-40 patients a day, and any one of those encounters can lead to a complaint, a grateful thank you, a hug, an argument or physical violence. It’s our word against the patient’s, there’s no recording of consultations and we often do not know what is going to walk through the door next. That’s part of the interest of general practice but also makes us extremely vulnerable and puts us at risk, multiple times every day, of ending up in the scenario that I find myself in now.

For periods of time over the past eight years I have not been able to work, partly because the fear of another patient coming in and causing me harm has become overwhelming. Of course this is highly unlikely, I know that, but when it’s happened once, you can never feel completely safe again.

I don’t recall ever having advice/training about how to deal with difficult patient situations. Is it appropriate for a patient to hug you? What do you do if they’re flirtatious even if it’s just jokey? How do you tell a patient you’re not comfortable with their behaviour without embarrassing them or ruining your doctor-patient relationship?

We all take it upon ourselves to deal with these issues in our own way, we might also discuss it with colleagues. I believe that it is time, especially in this day and age of increasing allegations being made against doctors by patients, to have some more structured training, probably at GP registrar level.

My experience shows that problems can arise from nowhere, can escalate quickly and dangerously, and have devastating consequences. We are privileged to have a unique relationship with those 30 people every day but we are not their friends, however much they think we are. We are professionals intimately involved in their day-to-day lives, and we have to learn how to protect ourselves.

Dr Eleanor Aston is a GP in Gloucester, who was stalked by a former patient for seven years