Nearly one third of healthcare professionals in South Africa say they have suffered verbal or physical abuse from patients and their relatives or members of the public during the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a survey by the Medical Protection Society (MPS).

MPS, which supports more than 32 000 healthcare professionals in South Africa, described the results of the survey which took place between October 22 and November 6 as deplorable, saying that the “abuse presents yet another source of anxiety for doctors at the worst possible time.”

The survey results were announced at the MPS’ Ethics for All conference and it revealed that 26% of doctors have experienced verbal abuse while working with patients during the pandemic, while a further 5% said that they experienced verbal or physical abuse outside of a medical setting.

“The survey results make for sombre reading and demonstrate that many doctors feel under attack,” said Dr Volker Hitzeroth, a consultant at MPS.

“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.”

A total of 512 local respondents gave an anonymous account of their experiences and nearly half them say that their mental wellbeing is worse now than it was at the start of the pandemic.

One doctor said that he was “robbed” at his practice, while a few others indicated that patients’ refusal to abide by COVID-19 regulations gives rise to animosity.

“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,” said one doctor.

Another added: “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.”

The numerous COVID-19 conspiracies that are circulating are also negatively impacting health care professionals, as one doctor said: “A lot of patients seem to think that there is some big medical conspiracy. So difficulties are often targeted at outpatient doctors.”

Impatience among people waiting to be treated also leads to flare-ups, according to the survey. Patients who do not want to wait become abusive towards staff.

Hitzeroth and the MPS is particularly concerned about how the abuse will impact the mental health of doctors.

“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,” he said.

Hitzeroth, however, said that mental wellbeing is not the sole responsibility of government, adding that hospitals and professional societies have a part to play, which they have done.

The MPS, along with many other professional societies, have offered free counselling to members experiencing work-related stress since the onset of the pandemic, according to Hitzeroth.

“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,” said Hitzeroth.

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