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£1.2m boost to see 20 extra GPs a year trained in province

By Victoria O'Hara

Senior GPs have welcomed an annual £1.2m boost for GP training - the biggest investment for over 10 years - but have warned there is still a workforce shortage crisis.

Health Minister Simon Hamilton released details of the investment to increase the number of trainees and relieve pressure on staff during a visit to Saintfield Health Centre yesterday.

This will see the number of training places rise from 65 to 85 each year.

Both the British Medical Association (BMA) and the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland (RCGP), who had repeatedly spoken of the huge pressures they were facing, said it was a positive move.

The RCGP issued a stark warning last year that at least 400 more GPs must be found to work in Northern Ireland in the next five years to deal with soaring waiting lists.

In 2013 the province had the lowest GP coverage per population in the UK - 6.4 family doctors per 10,000 people.

And 25% of GPs here were aged over 55.

According to the BMA and RCGP, the combined effect of GPs retiring, others leaving due to workload pressures, and younger doctors choosing not to become GPs, is building up a future crisis.

The chairman of the Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee, Dr Tom Black, said increasing the number of training places marks a positive step towards alleviating these pressures.

"We are pleased to see an additional 20 training places for GPs in Northern Ireland and we would hope to see even more training places being funded over the coming years," he said.

"We have met with the minister on a number of occasions to outline the issues faced by GPs in Northern Ireland and it is good to see that he has listened to what we have had said and has taken action. We very much welcome this."

Dr Black spoke about the "unprecedented pressures" facing GPs here.

"We face difficulties with attracting GPs to work in rural areas, an ever-increasing workload both in the number of patients we see, and the increasing complexity of the health problems we are dealing with," he said.

Dr John O'Kelly, chair of the RCGP, said the move was encouraging, but warned the staff shortages remained.

"Although the additional training places are very welcome, they do not fully meet the gap that has been identified within the GP workforce, and in particular within rural areas," he said.

"It is essential that the Government continues to invest in general practice to address the ongoing workforce shortage and other related pressures."

Mr Hamilton said: "With increasing demand from an ageing population it is vital we continue to invest in our workforce if we are to ensure people can get an appointment with their GP when they need to."

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