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High public anxiety over Covid-19 no excuse to abuse doctors

Recently released figures provide further evidence that the unified front the country presented in the early days of the Covid-19 crisis is over

I was really taken aback by the findings in a recent Medical Practitioner Society (MPS) survey that over a third of doctors said they have suffered verbal or physical abuse from patients, or patients’ relatives during Covid-19.

The survey of doctors in Ireland also showed that a further seven per cent have experienced verbal or physical abuse from a member of the public outside of a medical setting, with some saying they have been shouted at in the street. It would seem the “we’re all in this together” mood music of the early days of Covid-19 infection has been shattered.

I know the unremitting stress of the pandemic has led to widespread anxiety, but I’m having difficulty understanding the vilification of a group of professionals who are manning the front-line trenches in a major pandemic.

The survey of doctors in Ireland, also showed that a further seven per cent have experienced verbal or physical abuse from a member of the public outside of a medical setting

Unsurprisingly, the survey found that two in five doctors said their mental wellbeing is worse compared to the start of the pandemic. One doctor told the MPS they receive abuse almost daily in local shops. Others had food thrown at them by teenagers, and another said they have been shouted at on the street several times.

Here are some direct quotes from doctors in the survey, which illustrate the depth of abuse they have endured:

“I’ve been assaulted a number of times in the Covid-19 emergency department.”

“Patients are demanding to be seen. Some refusing to wear masks or social distance, and pushing past staff.”

“People keep a bigger distance than necessary when they hear that we are healthcare professionals, because they fear that we may be carriers. This is understandable, but it is very isolating, it certainly deepens our loneliness.”

“Local people have been calling to my home and banging on my door, as they are too afraid to go to the clinic.”

“I have been subject to low grade forms of verbal abuse on a daily basis since the pandemic began. People do not seem to give the doctor any credit whatsoever for now having to work at a much slower pace because of PPE and all of the extra precautions required to do our job.”

“I have broken the news about the death of a loved one and been at the receiving end of anger. I completely understand, but the cumulative daily toll of being at the receiving end of this anger is demoralising and upsetting, when everyone is just trying to do their best in very difficult times.”

The evidence suggests doctors and other health professionals are staring down the barrel of a fully loaded gun. And the development is on the radar of the Practitioner Health Matters Programme (PHMP). Marking the release of its 2019 annual report, medical director Dr Íde Delargy said the PHMP expected more presentations due to the increased mental health burden that Covid-19 had placed on practitioners.

She said last year saw that highest number of practitioners presenting to the Programme, and this year expected presentations to rise as a result of the coronavirus.

Dr Delargy added that health practitioners faced an unprecedented environment at present. Undoubtedly there is an unhealthy confluence of acute and chronic stress on health professionals. And as colleagues become infected or are designated close contacts, and have to leave the workforce for two weeks or longer, this additional acute stress could be the straw that breaks the camels’ chronically stressed back. In these extraordinary times, let’s look out for each other even more than we usually do.

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