A shortage of junior doctors in Northern Ireland could lead to services being suspended and patients waiting longer and travelling further for treatments, a leading medical union has warned.
Last summer the obstetric and gynaecology service at the Erne Hospital was suspended for a number of weeks due to a lack of junior doctors.
While the Health Minister has given assurances he is working to ensure this does not happen again, the British Medical Association (BMA) in Northern Ireland said the issues which led to the difficulties last year still exist and warned services will probably be hit again by a lack of junior doctors.
“There are two main factors creating this problem — one is the immigration laws and the second is that the number of posts have been increased to ensure rotas are EWTD (European Working Time Directive) compliant,” explained Dr David Farren, chair of the BMA (NI) Junior Doctors committee.
In August new European legislation — EWTD — was introduced restricting the number of hours junior doctors can work each week to 48 hours, while changes to the visa process have made it more difficult to recruit the foreign doctors needed to fill junior doctor posts.
The suspension of services at the Erne Hospital in September left some women in southern parts of Co Fermanagh facing a round-trip of well over 100 miles for routine appointments when efforts to appoint six junior doctors saw just one taking up a post.
Speaking at Stormont recently, Health Minister Michael McGimpsey said he has established a working group to consider what mechanisms can be put in place to improve the recruitment and allocation process.
But Dr Farren said: “Every single hospital has gaps in their rotas but I would predict gaps are going to be worse in the coming year as early indications suggest applications for junior doctor posts are down by 30%.
“I think it’s interesting the minister has appointed a working group but I must say my overwhelming feeling is if there was a solution to this problem NIMDTA (Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency), which is the body responsible for allocating junior doctors to posts, would have found it by now.
“In my opinion, the working group would have to lobby European government for a change in the immigration laws. Hopefully it isn’t going to be a waste of taxpayers’ money.”
Dr Farren also stressed junior doctors should not be blamed for any future disruption to services.
He said: “In most cases, junior doctors don’t have a choice of where they work. They just go where they’re sent. I don’t want it to become a case of people thinking these doctors won’t work outside of Belfast when that isn’t the case.”