Out-of-hours GP services are unsustainable, says Northern Ireland medic
Concerns that the stretched health service has reached a "critical" stage continue to grow, with pressures on out-of-hours services rising across Northern Ireland.
An urgent meeting with the Health Minister has now been called after it was reported people faced almost nine hours for an out-of-hours call to be returned.
A senior GP has warned out-of-hours services across the province are becoming "unsustainable".
A&E departments and medical staff across the province struggled to cope with winter pressures after a spike in demand for treatment over the weekend led to an appeal for people to stay away from casualty if they could.
A significant rise in patients attending emergency departments showed on Saturday, with a 15% to 25% increase in attendances.
The biggest increase was at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald, where there was a 25% rise in emergency department patients.
Karen McKevitt MLA said she was contacted by one person who claimed after calling the out-of-hours service in the Daisy Hill Hospital area she was told there were 120 people in front of her in the queue.
"There is very clearly a critical problem at the heart of the management of patient flow which involves the supply of doctors available to Daisy Hill," she said.
The SDLP MLA for South Down added: "The current situation is untenable and is not isolated to this area but in other hospitals and trusts too."
Dr Tom Black, chair of BMA Northern Ireland's GP Committee, said that it had continually highlighted the worrying situation with the Department of Health.
"Out-of-hours services are becoming unsustainable, while recruitment and retention issues, coupled with rising workloads, mean there is little to no capacity left in the system," he said.
"This is a situation which simply cannot continue and is one which we have been continually highlighting with the department, and will continue to do so."
Dr Black said although health trusts across the UK faced serious strain, the GP staff shortage was worse here.
"We have the lowest number of GPs per head of population in the UK and the lowest funding compared to anywhere else, but the highest demand for services."
Meanwhile, a nursing leader has called for strong political leadership in making urgent decisions. But Janice Smyth, director of the Royal College of Nursing, warned that, ahead of an election, politicians may fear making decisions that could be unpopular with the public.
"Nurses have consistently raised concerns about unprecedented pressures they are facing. Unfortunately, the health service has become a political football. There need to be difficult discussions and debates about how we provide services around Northern Ireland, how many hospitals we have."
A spokeswoman for the HSCB said: "A concerted effort is being made to ensure the patient journey through the system and into the community is as simple, safe and straightforward as possible.
"We can assure the public that anyone who needs to use an emergency department for urgent or life-threatening conditions will continue to receive access to safe, high quality services from our highly skilled and committed staff."