DAUK’s letter of complaint to IPSO

Dear Independent Press Standards Organisation,

On 24 August 2021, Ms Pearson wrote an article entitled, “GPs are improving their work-life balance while worsening the life-death balance of everyone else”:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/columnists/2021/08/24/gps-improving-work-life-balance-worsening-life-death-balance/

Subsequently, a further article was published on 1 September 2021 entitled “Time to turn the heat up on GPs who won’t see us face to face”:

https://www.telegraph.co.uk/columnists/2021/09/01/time-turn-heat-gps-wont-see-us-face-face/

In reference to the Editors’ Code of Practice, we wish to report breaches of the following sections of Clause 1 (Accuracy):

i) The Press must take care not to publish inaccurate, misleading or distorted information or images, including headlines not supported by the text.
ii) A significant inaccuracy, misleading statement or distortion must be corrected, promptly and with due prominence, and — where appropriate — an apology published. In cases involving IPSO, due prominence should be as required by the regulator.
iii) A fair opportunity to reply to significant inaccuracies should be given, when reasonably called for.
iv) The Press, while free to editorialise and campaign, must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact.

Upon reading both articles, our concerns about the nature of Ms Pearson’s articles relate to:

  1. Ms Pearson’s accusation that GPs are improving their work-life balance at the cost of ‘everyone else’ when the evidence shows the opposite in terms of burnout and stress. (“GPs are improving their work-life balance while worsening the life-death balance of everyone else”)
  2. Ms Pearson’s demeaning description of dedicated GP receptionists as “Gorgon gatekeeper”
  3. Ms Pearson’s inaccurate suggestion that GPs are “hiding” despite NHS data confirming they are providing more consultations than ever before. (“There is mounting anger that a highly-rewarded, once highly-respected profession continues to insist that it is “fully open” when personal experience suggests it is hiding behind an increasingly threadbare Covid sofa”)
  4. Ms Pearson’s diminution of life-saving Covid measures that GP practices have been instructed to adopt, whilst also implying that GPs are deliberately unkind and inconsiderate. (“How about the doctors’ union tries being “kind and considerate” to patients by not insisting on strict Covid measures”)
  5. Ms Pearson’s inaccurate comment that the use of virtual consultations somehow precludes ‘normal’ face to face service. (“As long as social distancing is maintained in surgery waiting rooms, there will be no return to normal face-to-face service. I’m sorry to say, that seems to suit a lot of GPs just fine…..GPs who prefer not to see the men and women who pay their salaries”) This is conjecture on Ms Pearson’s part.
  6. Ms Pearson’s incitement of attacks and abuse against GPs and primary care workers by using inflammatory language like ‘Time to turn the heat up’ as though we were lobsters. (“The BMA seems shocked that long-suffering patients are finally losing it with doctors. I’m not, are you?” “Time to turn the heat up on GPs who won’t see us face to face”)
  7. Ms Pearson’s potentially libellous statement that care from General Practice is “cruel, negligent and, frankly, inhuman treatment”

Throughout Ms Pearson’s articles, it appears that no GPs were interviewed and no professional medical bodies were approached for comment. We are also aware that this is not the first time Ms Pearson has been reported to the Independent Press Standards Organisation. This is neither the first time Ms Pearson has attacked GPs publicly nor is it the first complaint she will have received from frontline general practice. DAUK members have previously attempted to engage with The Telegraph and invite Ms Pearson to experience a typical day in General Practice, with no response.

Responsible media reporting is a patient safety issue, for two main reasons:
1) Patients who believe false rhetoric or conjecture may assume their surgery is closed, thus not seek help for serious symptoms. During the Covid pandemic we have already seen reduced rates of cancer diagnosis by around 40%, along with reduced presentations of other major non-Covid illnesses.
2) Those patients who believe false rhetoric or conjecture may inappropriately use emergency departments and the NHS 111 helpline, adding further pressures on our secondary care colleagues at a critical time for the NHS.

Important background information:

DAUK have publicly stated that NHS General Practice is in crisis. Contrary to inaccurate reports from Ms Pearson, GP practices have remained open throughout the pandemic.

GPs were instructed by NHS England to provide remote consultations when deemed appropriate for everyone’s protection. GPs were also informed that if a single member of staff were to contract Covid, the entire practice would need to close for 10 days, jeopardising the care of thousands of patients.

During a virtual consultation, if a GP deems that a patient needs a face-to-face assessment, they arrange for the patient to be seen. Meanwhile, many cases have been safely managed by virtual consultations, thus preventing countless possible cases of Covid transmission and avoidable deaths.

However, it is clear that demand for GP services presently exceeds capacity. This is not the fault of our doctors, and we continue to appeal to our leaders for further support for our patients. Blaming GPs for the decimation of our workforce is akin to blaming lorry drivers for the shortage of lorry drivers.

The number of full-time equivalent GPs has fallen by almost 20 percent in recent years. We have far fewer GPs per 1000 people than comparable nations, whilst the scope of our work is increasingly extended without additional funding.

GPs are doing their best to help patients within a broken system during unprecedented times. We are extremely disappointed by the lack of central and governmental support, and we agree that our patients deserve more from our NHS. Although 83 percent of our patients report a “good GP experience” during the pandemic, we wish for this figure to be closer to 100. But with the mounting attacks against our profession led by Ms Pearson and her like-minded colleagues make it hard for us to succeed.

Factual inaccuracies and negative portrayal of GPs in the press erode the trust that is vital in the doctor patient relationship. There is already an increase in physical, verbal and online abuse towards NHS staff and we are extremely concerned about the potential impact such journalism might have on the safety of NHS staff. We call for a formal response and apology from Ms Pearson. In the words of the NHS Five Year Forward View, if General Practice fails the NHS fails.

Dr Jenny Vaughan
Chair – Doctors’ Association UK
Press@dauk.org