Northern Ireland’s beleaguered GP service could be overhauled in a bid to improve access for patients.
With a growing number of people looking for appointments with their family doctor and insufficient GP numbers to meet demand, it is becoming increasingly difficult to access the crucial NHS service.
However, it has emerged new centres may be set up to enable patients who need an urgent same-day appointment to see a medical professional, while people suffering with chronic conditions will book advance appointments with their GP practice.
Prior to the arrival of Covid-19 in Northern Ireland, the ‘Phone First’ system was put in place by some surgeries to help prioritise which patients needed to be seen.
The system was rolled out across Northern Ireland at the beginning of the pandemic — to allow doctors to triage calls and reduce the risk of spreading the virus to staff and patients through unnecessary face-to-face appointments.
Under the Phone First system, patients telephone their surgery when they need an appointment and their name is added to a list to receive a telephone call from a GP that day who then decide what is the best course of action.
However, patients have reported frustration with the system as many are making hundreds of calls before getting through to their surgery and then being told there are no more call-backs available that day.
As a result, concerns have been raised that vulnerable patients, such as the elderly and people with mental health conditions, are struggling to access their GP.
Dr Alan Stout, chair of the British Medical Association’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, said: “We are aware that there are issues accessing GPs and that is something we want to address.
“Phone First was something we put in place to try and address the capacity issues, to try and ensure that patients were able to get appointments, but we know there are some problems.
“At the moment, we’re looking for ways of working that will allow people to get appointments for urgent problems and also for people to book ahead with their own GP.”
It is thought the proposed new scheme will benefit people with long-term conditions, as well as patients with dementia, where an appointment with a health professional aware of their medical and family history is useful.
The new centres for people with acute problems would see health professionals working together on a rota basis, similar to the out-of-hours scheme.
The GP workforce is facing a crisis, with over a third of the 1,077 whole time equivalent GPs in Northern Ireland over the age of 55.
Meanwhile, family doctors here deal with over 200,000 consultations each week, with around half converting to face-to-face appointments.
Last month, Stormont Health Minister Robin Swann announced he had accepted a recommendation to increase the number of GP training places by 10 for the upcoming academic year.
This will result in a record 121 training places being delivered in Northern Ireland in 2022/23.