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Doctors' fears as GP surgeries fall to a 25-year low

By Victoria O'Hara

The number of GP surgeries has dropped to a 25-year low putting patient care in Northern Ireland at risk, leading doctors have warned.

The Royal College of General Practitioners (RCGP) has said the failure to invest in services has led to the number of surgeries falling from 366 in 2005 to 351.

This is despite the number of patients rising by 125,182 from 1.8 million in 2004/05 to 1.92 million in 2013/14.

According to the RCGP this is an average increase per surgery from 4,948 to 5,474. The figures show that on average each GP surgery in the region now provides care to 500 more people than a decade ago. It has led to warnings general practice is "creaking at the seams" and needs a bigger share of the NHS budget.

The Belfast Telegraph previously reported how Northern Ireland has the lowest coverage of GPs per patient in the UK, with just 6.4 family doctors for every 10,000 people. This compares to 6.6 in England and Wales and 8 in Scotland. The RCGP NI has calculated that this shortfall equates to 234 family doctors, and that without urgent action the shortage could grow to 275 doctors by 2020.

Dr John O'Kelly, chair of the RCGP Northern Ireland, said: "It said the problem is bigger in Northern Ireland as the GP workforce is, on average, older than in England, Scotland and Wales.

"Around 24.8% of GPs here are over 55 and nearing retirement. This compares to 19.5% for Scotland, 22.3% for England and 23.1% for Wales. Northern Ireland has been allocated about £41m in additional public spending next year."

This is Stormont's share of the extra £2bn allocated to the UK health service by Chancellor George Osborne in his Autumn Statement. The college has called on the minister to invest more in GP services.

Dr O'Kelly added: "With growing numbers of patients, and fewer GP surgeries, general practice is creaking at the seams. But this pressure and the danger it poses to our patients has not yet been adequately recognised by decision makers.

"To gain parity with other UK nations, we urgently need a package of measures to encourage more young doctors to enter the GP workforce, retain and support current GPs, and make it easier for those who have left the workforce to come back."

The RCGP are now calling on the government to ensure that general practice receives 11% of the NHS budget - and to increase the number of GPs to allow them to "deliver the high standards of care that our patients deserve".

Factfile

The number of GP surgeries in Northern Ireland at its lowest since 1991. The Royal College of General Practitioners said the figure had fallen to 351 from 366 in 2004/05. In the same period, the number of registered patients rose by more than 125,000 to 1.92 million - an average increase per surgery of more than 500.

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