GP staff facing abuse from patients over cancelled blood tests

Cancellation of all but clinically urgent blood tests in England owing to shortage of bottles sparks anger

GP surgery staff are facing abuse from patients who are “angry and upset” that their blood test has been cancelled because of the NHS-wide chronic shortage of sample bottles.

“Patients are angry when we ring them up and say, ‘Sorry we can’t do your blood test after all’. A lot of people are quite angry and concerned about their own health,” Dr David Wrigley, the deputy chair of council at the British Medical Association, said.

“Patients are quite rightly upset and some get quite aggressive as well. They are worried because they don’t know what the implications of their cancelled test are for their health.”

Wrigley said patients were also anxious about the cancellations of the flu jab, as the Guardian reported last week.

GP practices in England had begun cancelling appointments because the NHS’s main supplier could not deliver stocks as planned for one to two weeks because of “unforeseen road freight challenges”. Staff were “exasperated” to be on the receiving end of such hostility, he added.

Wrigley, a GP in Lancashire, tweeted last week: “My surgery staff are at their wits’ end. Due to the blood bottle shortage having to cancel ‘non-urgent’ tests. When our staff call patients they are getting abuse and anger directed at them. This is NOT our fault.”

NHS England has responded to the shortage of blood sample bottles by telling GPs to cancel all but clinically urgent blood tests and hospitals to cut back the tests they do by at least 25%. The sudden lack of them has arisen because Becton Dickinson, the NHS’s main supplier, is unable to make promised deliveries.

It has blamed that on a number of factors including unprecedented demand, “transportation challenges” and a two-week shutdown at its factory in Plymouth.

While Wrigley stressed that only a minority of patients were responding with hostility to hearing their blood test had been cancelled, “with flu cancellations on top this creates more antipathy towards general practice, when [these shortages] are totally out of our control. Patients are rightly anxious and upset about cancellations.”

NHS England has told GPs and hospitals to severely limit blood tests until 17 September. However, fears are growing that the shortage will continue into the autumn. Cardiff and Vale University health board wrote to staff last week warning that it might run out of sample bottles due to “the criticality of the urgent national supply issues of blood sampling collection tubes”.

It added: “This urgent stock issue is expected to extend into November, and based on the organisation’s typical usage of these products the current stocks available to us will not be sufficient to met demand.”

Becton Dickinson has brought in 9m bottles from the US as an emergency measure to alleviate the situation and handed them over to the NHS. However, it is not clear when they will be distributed and in what numbers. It has also boosted production in Plymouth by 20%.

A spokesperson for the firm said: “We expect the situation to stabilise and recover through September, based on the volume of tubes we are supplying to the NHS.”

Wrigley said GPs had been put “in a very, very difficult situation” by now having to decide which patients get a blood test and which do not. While some tests can be delayed fairly easily, delaying others – such as to decide what medication someone is on for a long-term condition – could pose a risk to the patient.

An NHS spokesperson said: “NHS staff should never be subjected to verbal or physical abuse for doing their job and the NHS will not tolerate abuse, aggression or violence.

“While Becton Dickinson has confirmed the current global supply issue will mean constraint will be temporary, it is vital that GPs and hospitals continue to follow the guidance until further advised, so patients with the most urgent need can be sure of a test.”


Denis Campbell Health policy editor

The GuardianTramp

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