Staff shortages and referral backlog fuelling abuse against doctors

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Three in five doctors (60%) in Ireland have experienced or witnessed verbal or physical abuse from patients or their relatives within the past 12 months, with 37% saying the incidents resulted from staff shortages and 39% saying it was due to the referral waiting list, according to a Medical Protection Society (MPS) survey.

Of nearly 900 doctors surveyed, 86% of those who had experienced or witnessed abuse in the past 12 months said it negatively affected their mental health, and over a quarter (26%) said an increase in abuse and intimidation from patients had made them reconsider their career in healthcare.

A quarter of doctors (25%) also felt that abuse against healthcare professionals was not taken seriously by the Gardai.

The MPS called upon the Government, Gardai, and HSE employers to take “every possible step” to address this issue.

Dr James Thorpe, Deputy Medical Director at MPS, said“While long referral waiting lists and staff shortages understandably cause stress to patients and their families, healthcare professionals are doing their best under challenging circumstances. While most patients are respectful, it is troubling that so many healthcare workers face aggression and intimidation.

“Experiencing and witnessing abuse can have profound effects on the mental health of healthcare professionals, which can be detrimental to both the individual and to patient care. It can also result in healthcare staff needing time off work or even contemplating leaving the healthcare profession altogether.

“Healthcare professionals – whether working in primary care, HSE or private clinics – must feel their safety is a priority and be encouraged to report all abusive behaviour.

“All healthcare settings should provide an appropriate forum where those who witness or experience any kind of abuse from patients can talk about it and seek appropriate wellbeing support. Peer support networks can also help to foster a supportive environment where experiences can be shared and reflected on, and staff should be offered practical advice on de-escalation techniques.

“The Gardai could also consider how they can support healthcare settings, for example, by encouraging reporting of abuse and better communicating to the public the consequences of abuse.

“More broadly, there is a need for research to ascertain the additional training needs for HSE staff for dealing with conflict and protecting themselves from violence.

“The Irish Government, Gardai, and HSE must take every possible step to address this issue and help raise awareness of the importance of treating all healthcare workers respectfully. Failure to act may result in the loss of many more skilled and dedicated staff at a time when the profession can least afford it.”