Fears of crisis in Northern Ireland's NHS as number of GPs applying for overseas work soars
Fresh fears of a GP workforce crisis in Northern Ireland have been raised after the number of family doctors in the UK applying for certificates enabling them to work abroad has increased by almost 50% since 2008.
Official figures show a growing number of GPs - who cost the public almost £250,000 to train as a family doctor - are applying for a licence so they can practise outside the UK.
Many are escaping to Australia for the shorter working hours and higher wage, but concerns have been voiced over the "waste of investment" in doctors who leave without benefiting patients in Northern Ireland.
According to the General Medical Council (GMC), the number of GPs in the UK who requested 'certificates of current professional status' from the regulator, which allows them to practise oversees, has increased from 576 in 2008 when records began to 822 in 2014.
In the first six months of 2015, 418 GPs applied for a permit to work abroad out of a total of 2,680 doctors. It comes at a time when senior doctors have been warning of a major GP shortage here.
Earlier this year it emerged there are more than 250 trained GPs from Queen's University who are currently in Australia, Canada and other Commonwealth countries.
Figures show that over the past decade, the number of registered patients has risen by 125,182 from 1.8m in 2004/05 to 1.92m in 2013/14 - an average increase per surgery from 4,948 to 5,474. The number of GP surgeries in Northern Ireland has also fallen to just 351 - down from 366 in 2005 - and the lowest number since 1991.
It takes around 10 years to train a doctor from medical student to a GP, costing a total of around £600,000.
A medical student trains for five years to qualify as a doctor then completes a two-year foundation programme. A further three years of training, costing £83,000 a year, is needed to qualify as a GP.
Former health minister Michael McGimpsey said it was not right that hundreds of thousands of pounds were invested in doctors in Northern Ireland who then leave the country.
"I think there is a responsibility on undergraduates when they finish to the health service in Northern Ireland," he said.
"They get very good training but last year I understand 50 doctors left to go to Australia and Canada, we can't afford that. This of course will have a knock on effect on patients."
The UUP MLA Mr McGimpsey added: "We are investing in training doctors but they are wandering off, despite the fact that there are jobs there."
Royal College of General Practitioners NI chairman Dr John O'Kelly, however, said the rising figures were "not surprising", adding that it is driven by the huge pressures of the working environment.