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GPs 'refusing to work in out-of-hours warzones'

By Lisa Smyth

Doctors are refusing to work for the GP out-of-hours service in Northern Ireland because it is unsafe for patients, it has been claimed.

Family doctors at the annual conference for GPs have branded the service here as "not fit for purpose".

In a further damning indictment, one Belfast GP described the waiting room at the out-of-hours base where she works as a "warzone".

Dr Ursula Brennan said: "You have 100 patients waiting for triage, 10 to 12 visits to be done and what seems like a warzone in the waiting room."

The conference heard numerous examples of how out-of-hour bases closed for hours at a time because there were no doctors to staff them. On some occasions there is only one doctor to cover an entire health trust, they said.

The conference also heard GPs were being harassed by text messages begging them to work shifts in the out-of-hours service. Dr Brennan said she received 12 such texts over 22 days.

"They use words about critical shift cover," she explained.

The GPs agreed the service "is now broken and is now a significant risk to the service, to doctors and to patient care".

And they have called for an urgent review by health officials.

They hit out at a £5m cash injection for health trusts to deal with trolley waits in emergency departments this winter, while the GP out-of-hours service slips deeper into crisis.

Northern Ireland is currently facing a severe shortage of GPs and doctors at the conference accused Health Minister Jim Wells of burying his head in the sand over the problem.

The conference heard there were not enough GPs working in Northern Ireland to cope with the demands being placed on primary care, both in and out-of-hours.

Delegates accused health officials of not training enough GPs despite knowing of the impending problem.

The conference heard 24% of GPs are over 55, while 41% are over 50 years old - meaning 500 GPs could be lost from the workforce in the next 10 years. However, only 20 whole time equivalent GPs entered the profession last year.

"We are walking in to a crisis in terms of the safety of the service we provide," Belleek GP Dr Eugene Deeny said.

Case study

In 2007-8 there were 140,685 patients seen at A&Es in the Northern Trust, compared to 130,457 in 2013-14. Despite 10,000 fewer patients last year and massive investment in A&E services since 2007, only 77% of patients were seen within four hours. In 2007-8, it was much higher - 90.5% That same year, only 56 people waited more than 12 hours to be seen. But in 2013-14, it rose to 1,048.

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