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Northern Ireland has lost 20 GP services in three years

Minister 'should be extremely concerned'

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Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA’s local GP committee

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA’s local GP committee

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA’s local GP committee

Northern Ireland has lost 20 GP surgeries over the past three years, it can be revealed.

Official figures highlight the challenges health bosses have faced in recent years to ensure everyone across Northern Ireland has access to a General Practitioner.

The statistics show that four GP practices closed between January 2017 and the end of last year, while 16 amalgamated with other existing surgeries.

The figures have emerged just weeks after it was revealed that Northern Ireland's GP workforce crisis is affecting Belfast, with one surgery due to close at the end of next month. The future of a second surgery in the city is also uncertain, with the Health and Social Care Board searching to find a GP to take on the contract by June.

The latest figures were released by the health minister, Robin Swann, in response to a question submitted by DUP MLA Jim Wells.

Former health minister Mr Wells said addressing the problem of recruitment and retention of GPs in Northern Ireland must be a priority for Mr Swann.

"If I were still in post, I would be extremely concerned about this," he said. "Of course, Mr Swann might argue that only four GP practices have closed but the reality is that the patients from 16 surgeries have been shared out amongst neighbouring practices.

"That puts additional pressure on the GPs who have taken on the additional patients.

"I think we really need to be looking at bringing in a mechanism whereby people who do their medical degree in Northern Ireland must work here for five years after they graduate.

"The last figure I saw for the cost of training up a doctor was something horrendous like £690,000 and that was quite a while ago.

"The doctors we train are very highly skilled and it's only natural that other countries would want to make use of their knowledge and expertise, but we spend so much money training them that it seems only fair that they should spend some time working here.

"I think this would stop our doctors leaving straight away to take up jobs in Vancouver or Sydney or other parts of the world."

Northern Ireland's GP crisis has been blamed on a number of factors.

These include a failure by health officials to plan for the high proportion of GPs reaching retirement age, as well as the increasing demands on the service.

More care is now provided in the community and there is a growing ageing population.

The workload has become so intolerable that GPs are choosing to leave their jobs or take early retirement.

At the same time, it is difficult and sometimes impossible to find doctors to take on jobs in GP surgeries, leading to the collapse of practices across Northern Ireland.

This has resulted in the Health and Social Care Board struggling to find alternative arrangements, including asking other GP practices to take on thousands of patients from closing surgeries.

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee in Northern Ireland, said work is being done to improve conditions for family doctors.

Multi-disciplinary teams (MDTs) are being rolled out across NI which is helping to address workload, he said. However, he stressed that it is imperative that the crisis is tackled to ensure the best outcomes for patients.

"It's vital as the future of the health service is dependent on a strong and robust primary care service," he said.

"It's the first point of contact for patients in 90% of cases and when it experiences issues, like the difficulties that are occurring at the moment, there are reverberations throughout the rest of the health service.

"If primary care is struggling, we see emergency departments struggling, referrals go up, prescribing suffers, it really does impact on every other part of the health service."

Mr Swann said: "The number of GP training places has been significantly increased over the last few years, from 65 in 2015 to 111 in 2019. Initiatives are also in place to support GPs to return or remain in general practice through the GP induction and refresher scheme and the GP retainer scheme."

Mr Swann added that the MDTs are the "cornerstone of our plans to transform the health service".

Belfast Telegraph