Ageing and dwindling workforce may see waiting lists spiral out of control
The Department of Health has published its Medical School Places Review and it makes for grim reading.
According to the report, the number of doctors in Northern Ireland rose by 655 between 2012 and 2017.
Of course, this is to be welcomed, as well as the fact that health officials commissioned a study to examine Northern Ireland’s medical workforce.
However, doctors have long since warned of a failure by the Department of Health to take seriously the growing problem of attracting and retaining doctors across the system. The reasons for the current workforce crisis are many — a growing elderly population with multiple health conditions, underfunding of the NHS, challenging work conditions and a long standing reluctance by politicians to rationalise services, have all played a part.
At the same time, every year we lose a proportion of our well-trained doctors, whose skills and qualifications are not only transferable but also highly desirable, to countries such as Australia and Canada.
It is the sad case that many who leave to work abroad never return after discovering better working conditions, career opportunities, and pay elsewhere.
Another fundamental issue is that we have not been training enough doctors, with some specialties faring worse than others.
General practice is already in crisis, with an alarming number of GPs reaching burn-out and leaving the profession altogether, or moving to another specialty.
An increasing number of surgeries are closing down as health officials have been unable to find doctors willing to take over contracts from outgoing GPs.
Rural areas in particular have been affected, with remaining GPs being forced to take on even more patients in order to keep the service operating.
Look to our hospitals and the situation isn’t much better.
Figures from the report reveal there are 110 vacant senior doctor posts at the moment. Neurology, paediatrics, emergency medicine, anaesthetics and intensive care medicine, urology and trauma and orthopaedics fare the worst.
Even if the number of trainee doctors increases, health bosses must come up with ways of encouraging more of them to follow careers in areas such as general practice and emergency medicine — a challenge given the current atrocious working conditions in these specialties.
We also need to train more doctors in areas such as Londonderry and Fermanagh, which would help to address rota gaps there.
Northern Ireland needs at least 100 more medical students a year to meet the increasing demand for doctors. But with health bosses estimating this will cost £30m a year, the chances of this happening — even with a health minister in place to rubberstamp the proposals — are slim.In the meantime, waiting lists in Northern Ireland continue to spiral out of control and patients and staff continue to suffer.