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Amid a shortage of GPs, up to 90 of our doctors don't see any patients

By Victoria O'Hara

Published 11/04/2015

The number of GP surgeries has fallen to a 24-year low of 351, down from 366 just 10 years ago
The number of GP surgeries has fallen to a 24-year low of 351, down from 366 just 10 years ago

Around 90 qualified doctors are employed across the Northern Ireland Health Service as administrators and do not treat patients directly, it has been revealed.

The figures come in the same week serious concerns were raised over the lack of GPs in the region. A further breakdown showed 24 fully qualified doctors work in the Health and Social Care Board in roles where they have no contact with patients and 39 in the Public Health Agency.

The former health minister Michael McGimpsey has branded the situation as "unacceptable" adding that he believes current pressures on the health service has put doctors off working with patients.

Leading doctor George O'Neill said although health boards and trusts do need expert medical advice so they have "credibility as a clinical leader", doctors must also be involved at the frontline. The Health Board insisted that "a large number" of the doctors continue to have frontline clinical duties. Mr McGimpsey said he has now sought further clarification on exactly how many of the 90 do not treat patients face to face.

"Now, I fully understand that on occasions in order to get the best health managers sometimes experience on the frontline is essential," he said.

"That is obviously also the case in offices such as the Chief Medical Officer and the Medical Directors across a range of our other important arms' length bodies.

Unfortunately, however, the numbers that were revealed to me through an Assembly Question are so great that I suspect a number of these 90 doctors have been put off working on the frontline as the pressures there are so great at present."

Mr McGimpsey added: "The health minister must intervene to do all he can to ensure our doctors are supported entering and staying at the frontline of healthcare.

"In particular, I simply do not believe it is necessary for 24 fully qualified doctors to be working in the Health and Social Care Board in roles where they have no contact with patients, or a further 39 in the Public Health Agency (PHA)."

Dr O'Neill, who has more than four decades of experience as a GP and was chair of the Belfast Local Commissioning Group, also said there needs to be clarification on the roles of the 90 doctors.

"What concerns me is the number of public health doctors who are remote from the frontline, remote from the patients and service users and I think their skills could be put to better use if they worked closely with the local councils," he said.

Dr O'Neill added that those working within the PHA would be involved in developing vital services.

"But the credibility must be questioned if they are not involved at the coal face," he added.

"There are some people who are in the primary care unit and still involved in sessions out of hours and to have credibility as a clinical leader you must be involved at the frontline."

There is a shortage of 234 family doctors in Northern Ireland. Some 25% of GPs are over 55 so many will be retiring soon, further worsening the situation. The number of GP surgeries in Northern Ireland has fallen to just 351 - down from 366 in 2005 - and the lowest number since 1991.

In a statement from the HSCB, a spokesman said: "Doctors provide valuable professional and clinical input to facilitate the delivery of frontline services, ensure that health services commissioned meet the needs of the populace, review the governance arrangements and performance of health services to ensure they are safe, sustainable and resilient.

"A large number of these doctors, in addition to their duties at the HSC Board, continue to have frontline clinical duties with patients."

A spokesman for the PHA said: "The Public Health Agency employs medical doctors alongside a variety of healthcare professionals in a range of specialist roles essential to deliver our work as an integral part of frontline services and making a real change to people's lives."

Story so far

The Department of Health confirmed there are 90 qualified doctors currently employed as administrators. A breakdown showed 24 doctors work in the Health and Social Care Board in roles where they have no contact with patients and 39 in the Public Health Agency.

The former health Minister Michael McGimpsey has branded the situation as "unacceptable".

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