Select country
Membership information
0800 561 9000
Medicolegal advice
0800 561 9090
Refine my search

Four in five GPs fear reprisal over delayed referrals

Post date: 04/06/2021 | Time to read article: 2 mins

The information within this article was correct at the time of publishing. Last updated 07/07/2021

Nearly four in five GPs in the UK (77%) are concerned about facing investigation if patients come to harm as a result of delayed referrals or non-COVID-19 services being unavailable or limited, according to a survey by Medical Protection1

The survey of 688 UK GPs followed a report from Macmillan that estimated there are around 50,000 ‘missing’ cancer diagnoses across the UK2

Medical Protection said it expects a significant number of medicolegal disputes, complaints and investigations where delayed referrals have seriously impacted on patients’ prognoses and outcomes due to circumstances beyond their doctors’ control.

It says the impact of an investigation on the already emotionally and physically exhausted doctors involved would be significant and urged the Government to consider this as they keep the need for emergency laws to protect doctors from unfair investigation under review. 

Dr Rob Hendry, Medical Director at Medical Protection, said: “We have been talking to members throughout the pandemic and know concern around investigation following an adverse patient outcome which has resulted from a delayed referral has been high, but our recent survey indicates that almost four in five GPs are now worried about this.
“Before the pandemic, there were already long-standing concerns about the extent to which individual doctors are held to account for delayed diagnoses and other incidents that occur due to system pressures or failures. COVID-19 has had a serious impact on the availability of services, and this has severely exacerbated the problem.”

Dr Hendry added: “The prospect of a poor outcome under these circumstances would be devastating for any patient, but the psychological impact on the already emotionally and physically exhausted doctors involved would also be significant. On top of that, they face potential medicolegal disputes, complaints and investigations relating to situations they have had no control over.

“We have called for emergency laws to protect healthcare workers from unfair investigation since the start of the pandemic and recently urged the Government to introduce the legislation without delay to protect those at risk of inappropriate legal challenge following difficult decisions on how limited resources are allocated in hospitals. 

“Doctors also feel vulnerable when it comes to delayed referrals and the potentially devastating impact on their patients through no fault of their own. The Health Secretary agreed to keep the need for emergency laws under review, and we would again urge him to consider what protections need to be put in place.”

Some GPs who took part in the Medical Protection survey commented anonymously:
“We are handling more and more patients who have chronic deteriorating conditions who would normally have been seen and managed by secondary care by now. The clinical risk is greater, the referral pathways extremely delayed and we are going to see the morbidity (and mortality) effects of this pandemic for years to come.”

“I’m very concerned that referrals are bounced back sometimes with a list of investigations which might not happen in a timely fashion. Patients are also not attending for treatment or follow up – who’s accountable?”

“As the initiator of referrals to secondary care, we are being continuously asked by patients to chase their referrals. There is a feeling that we have not highlighted the urgency of their situation and that is the reason for the delay.”

“Life threatening diagnoses are sometimes made in the course of routine investigations – including so called ’early cancer diagnoses’. As a GP, I’m unable to investigate my patients in the usual manner. Routine referrals for investigations are being rejected and sent back to GPs and it is then left up to us to explain to the patient why the investigation has not been done. Patients are being assessed remotely which will inevitably miss important pathology. There is a whole spectrum of undiagnosed pathology that will come to light once this pandemic is over and my worry is that GPs will then be at the coal face of this undiagnosed pathology and will undoubtedly be in the firing line for blame.”

1688 GPs in the UK contributed to the survey, which was undertaken by Medical Protection between 8-12 January 2021


Share this article

New site feature tour

Introducing an improved
online experience

You'll notice a few things have changed on our website. After asking our members what they want in an online platform, we've made it easier to access our membership benefits and created a more personalised user experience.

Why not take our quick 60-second tour? We'll show you how it all works and it should only take a minute.

Take the tour Continue to site

Medicolegal advice
0800 561 9090
Membership information
0800 561 9000

Key contact details

Should you need to contact us, our phone numbers are always visible.

Personalise your search

We'll save your profession in the "I am a..." dropdown filter for next time.

Tour completed

Now you've seen all of the updated features, it's time for you to try them out.

Continue to site
Take again