Almost a third (31%) of healthcare professionals in South Africa say they have suffered verbal or physical abuse from patients, patients’ relatives, or members of the public during Covid-19, according to a survey by Medical Protection.

The results of the survey that was conducted among 512 MPS members from 22 October to 6 November this year were announced at the organisation’s virtual annual Ethics for All conference last week.

It showed that 26% of doctors have experienced verbal or physical abuse from patients or patients’ families during the pandemic. A further 5% said they had experienced verbal or physical abuse from members of the public outside of a medical setting.

The MPS described the survey results as “deplorable”, and said the abuse presents yet another source of anxiety for doctors at the worst possible time. In the same survey, nearly half of the participants said that their mental wellbeing is worse compared to the start of the pandemic.

“These survey results make for sombre reading and demonstrate that many doctors feel under attack. While this is a frustrating and extremely stressful time for the public, it is sad and deplorable to think that 1 in 3 doctors who go to work every day in the most challenging circumstances, putting patients first, face abuse. Not only in their place of work but in public too, said Dr Volker Hitzeroth, Medicolegal Consultant at Medical Protection.

“Many doctors told us they have faced abuse from patients and families when trying to enforce social distancing and mask wearing. Doctors and staff have also been abused by patients being triaged and waiting for treatment. This presents yet another source of anxiety for doctors at a time when many have expressed grave concerns about their mental wellbeing.”

 In the survey nearly half (45%) of doctors said that their mental wellbeing was worse compared to the start of the pandemic.

According to Dr Hitzeroth, healthcare professionals in South Africa already faced a myriad of daily challenges prior to Covid-19.

“The pandemic has exacerbated these challenges; already burdened health resources are being stretched further, doctors are worried for the safety of their patients and their own families, and are now facing a compounding threat of abuse from the very people they seek to care for.

“Without support to address an array of mental wellbeing concerns – including those caused by verbal and physical abuse – doctors are at risk of becoming disillusioned or will suffer in silence with psychological injuries, both of which put the safety of themselves and their patients at risk,” Dr Hitzeroth said.

“Mental wellbeing is not just a challenge to be met by the Government; hospitals and professional societies have a part to play. Many professional societies have stepped up with dedicated colleagues looking after the wellbeing of their members. MPS has, since the beginning of the pandemic, extended its free and confidential counselling service to members experiencing work-related stress.

“A nationwide campaign to raise awareness and provide additional support would help join up these efforts and ensure those healthcare professionals who need specialist support can access it when they need it most,” he concluded.

The survey also found that one in two doctors are concerned or extremely concerned that they might be investigated for a missed or delayed diagnosis for diseases other than COVID due to the constraints they experience in the delivery of services during the pandemic. One in three also expressed concern about being investigated following a decision to withdraw or withhold life prolonging treatment.

Here are some of the comments from doctors who participated in the survey.

I was robbed at my practice”

“I have had patients and their escorts who verbally start arguing that they are ‘tired’ of abiding to the Covid regulation and refuse to wear masks.”

“I tried to approach a local store owner not adhering to social distancing or mask wearing enforcement in their store. I was verbally berated publicly as well as via a call. Upon calling authorities I came to determine that there was no quick recourse.”

“A lot of patients seem to think that there is some big medical conspiracy. So, difficulties are often targeted at outpatient doctors.”

“Patients don’t want to wait…so they abuse my staff.”

“People often verbally abuse doctors and nurses if they have to wait, even though they are green or yellow codes.”

“I am only seeing people that are scared of having Covid or those with chronic conditions that have gone out of control. Patient fear is abnormal!”