More than 20 Northern Ireland GP practices shut since 2014
More than 20 GP practices in Northern Ireland have closed in the last five years, according to new figures.
Statistics from the Department of Health show that, while 23 practices have shut their doors since 2014, the number of patients at each practice has increased by 11%.
As of March 31 this year, the average number of patients registered at each of Northern Ireland's 327 practices was 6,084.
Despite there being less practices, the number of GPs has increased 13% since 2014, to 1,334.
Alliance health spokesperson Paula Bradshaw said that, while the overall increases in the number of GPs is to be welcome, the drop in the number of practices is "alarming".
"It also remains the case too few people coming through medical training are choosing General Practice. With primary care, one of the focal points of the overall transformation agenda, it remains the case workforce planning is not yet where it needs to be," she said.
”Given the recent audit report which stated the cost of locums is now £83 million per annum, the rate of increasing the number of GPs working in permanent roles in our communities needs to rise exponentially.
"One of the mechanisms for addressing this would be the introduction of the Graduate Medical School in the North West - a proposal that is failing to get any real traction in the absence of a functioning Executive, despite the efforts of Ulster University and others".
SDLP health spokesperson Mark H Durkan said the figures are "deeply concerning" and raise "serious challenges" around sustainability, staff workloads and access to services.
“The problem is particularly pronounced in communities west of the Bann where we know there has been a significant challenge around retaining GPs and sustaining practices," he added.
"Worryingly, despite an increase in the overall number of GPs, the areas where we’ve seen a reduction in practices have been the least able to recruit new doctors, creating a downward spiral in service provision."
Last month, Dr Grainne Doran of the Royal College of GPs Northern Ireland (RCGPNI), said that pressures are being felt because more family doctors are choosing to work part-time.
"We have had an increase in the total number of GPs but unfortunately they are not all choosing to work full time in GP practices," said told the BBC.
"Instead, they are expanding their portfolios in other areas - which is great but doesn't mean we have enough GPs working in surgeries to meet the needs of a growing population.
"For instance, they are working in emergency departments perhaps one night a week, and they are also involved in hospice care, even involved in training."
Earlier this year, RCGPNI launched a campaign to encourage patients to use the health service more wisely.
The leaflet campaign urged patients to cut down on missed appointments and seek the advice from trained medical receptionists at practices.
Belfast Telegraph Digital