More than quarter of NHS staff face harassment and abuse from patients

Author: Adrian O'Dowd

More than a quarter (28.5%) of NHS staff said they had experienced harassment, bullying or abuse from patients, relatives or members of the public last year, according to the latest NHS Staff Survey* published today.

Despite this, the survey of around 569,000 NHS employees from 300 separate organisations showed staff morale has improved across the NHS overall.

The results showed that almost one in seven (14.9%) of staff experienced physical violence and almost 40,000 of those who responded (7.2%) said they faced discrimination from patients over the last year – up from 5.8% in 2015.

Racism was the most common form of discrimination, but 2019 also saw the highest levels of reported sexism and intolerance of religion and sexuality.

The new figures come as NHS leaders confirmed that from April under NHS England’s new Standard Contract rules, NHS services will be able to protect staff by barring from non-emergency care any patient or visitor who inflicts discriminatory or harassing behaviour on staff.

Previously, individual NHS organisations could only refuse services to patients if they were aggressive or violent.

The survey also showed that NHS staff said they were now happier and more likely to recommend their organisation as a place to work than last year.

Staff reported that the quality of care in the NHS had improved over the last year, with more than seven in 10 saying they would recommend their organisation to their family and friends for treatment, a proportion that has increased every year for the past five years.

Over four fifths of staff said they were happy with the quality of care they gave to patients – a rise from the previous year but down from the 2016 level of 83% - and the proportion of staff saying they were able to deliver the care they aspired to was at its highest recorded level at 69%.

In a letter sent from health & social care secretary Matt Hancock to staff today, he praised the “brilliant” NHS team and pledged to tackle the issue of violence.

“There is far too much violence against NHS staff, and too much acceptance that it’s part of the job,” wrote Mr Hancock.

“It is appalling that this happens at all. Even more so that it happens disproportionately to black and minority ethnic staff. It is a tribute to you, your professionalism and your resilience that so often you persevere in providing the highest quality care, despite the small minority who are abusive towards you.

“We will not tolerate assaults, physical or verbal, against NHS colleagues ‒ staff or volunteers. You should not tolerate violence or abuse either. Being assaulted or abused is not part of your job.”

This explained why the new rules would come into effect in April that would allow hospitals to bar patients who inflicted discriminatory or harassing behaviour on staff from receiving non-emergency care.

In addition, the NHS had joined forces with the police and the Crown Prosecution Service to approve a joint agreement on offences against emergency workers.

This would ensure, he said, that those who acted violently and with criminal intent towards NHS staff were swiftly brought to justice.

Sir Simon Stevens, NHS England chief executive, said: “It’s welcome news that according to over half a million NHS employees, staff morale is now improving, and patient safety scores are now at a five year high.

“While teams across the country are under real pressure, NHS staff consistently go the extra mile for patients. So as a country we need to show the same commitment to them, which is why we are determined to clamp down on abuse and aggression in all its forms.”

Dr Helena McKeown, a British Medical Association chief officer said: “It is an intolerable situation when doctors – and all NHS staff – working above and beyond to provide high quality, compassionate care to patients face violence and abuse from the very people they are treating.

“While rising workloads and under-staffed working environments can lead to long waiting times and frustrations for patients and their loved ones, there is absolutely no excuse for this to be taken out on dedicated staff, who only want the best for their patients.

“It’s important to note that this survey does not include staff working in primary care, and we know from our GP members that they face similar issues, whether they are working in practices or putting themselves at risk when visiting patients at home.”

*NHS Staff Survey 2019. NHS Survey Coordination Centre, 18 February 2020.