It was an incident that shocked general practice. In 2007, Glasgow GP Dr Helen Jackson was seriously injured after being stabbed in the stomach in her surgery. There were calls for GPs to be properly equipped with attack alarms, but general practice is a stoical profession. Most GPs simply consoled themselves with the feeling that this incident, although frightening, was isolated.
But Pulse’s investigation this week, based on crime figures released by 30 police forces under the Freedom of Information Act, suggests acts of violence against GPs, their staff and their patients are no longer merely distressing exceptions. Their numbers are climbing, by 19% over two years, even against a backdrop of falling rates of violent crime in society in general.
It is important not to be alarmist – nobody is claiming general practice is the new black spot for broken Britain. But the nature of these crimes, ranging from rape, to hold-up at gunpoint, to attacks using knives and baseball bats, is deeply disturbing, and their rising numbers entirely unacceptable.
Some 20% of GPs responding to a Pulse survey said they had witnessed violence in their surgeries, and as many as 9% had witnessed sexual harassment. Lessons need to be learned. GPs can no longer afford to soldier on, knowing their profession puts their personal safety at risk, without insisting on measures to provide a degree of protection.
Our new findings will prompt demands again for better provision by the NHS of attack alarms for GPs and their staff, as well as financial support for training in conflict resolution and tightened security measures in surgeries. New-style buildings, designed on an open plan and protected with security doors and cameras, can help.
But another Pulse investigation, published just over a year ago, revealed just how little progress there has been in upgrading GP premises, particularly in those inner-city areas that also often harbour the highest rates of violent crime. Too many GPs continue to be stuck in buildings with poor sight lines and security, which leave them vulnerable to violence.
GPs are also left at risk of crime through a failure of policy. When a patient is struck off from one practice’s list and taken on by another, primary care organisations are supposed to provide details of the removal. In reality, though, it can be weeks later that a practice will find out about violent incidents, denying them the opportunity to put in extra security. Dr Ruth Clery, a GP in Croydon, south London, this week tells Pulse how a registrar was assaulted in her surgery less than a month ago. The person who committed that crime may already have been assigned a new GP, who surely has a right to know about the levels of risk the patient poses.
GPs are in a unique position in the health service, seeing patients in settings that are often informal and insecure, and delivering long-term care to some people they would rather see only the once. It is essential the NHS recognises those special circumstances, and at the very least provides GPs with the information they need to keep themselves safe.
This week’s editorial