Stressed Northern Ireland doctors live in fear of making fatal mistake
The workload of GPs across Northern Ireland is so high they are living in fear of making a mistake that could lead to them being accused of manslaughter, it has been claimed.
Family doctors are working under such intolerable pressure that they are being reduced to tears and it is becoming impossible to find GPs willing to take up permanent jobs.
It has emerged that one GP practice here has been unable to fill a vacancy despite spending £3,000 on a UK-wide advertising campaign.
A doctor from the practice said: "We advertised for a partner or salaried GP post and we didn't get one application.
"We didn't even get any expressions of interest, and it's the first time that's ever happened.
"I'm not saying we're in an unusual position. From speaking to other practices, this is becoming standard. The workload is becoming so heavy that GPs are finding it really tough.
"We have GPs come to our practice and leave saying they'll never be back, asking how we do it every day. They've even called it a 'hellhole' and it isn't unusual for them to be in tears.
"I actually rang A&E the other day to sort something out for a patient and I spoke to a GP who would actually work there than in a GP surgery.
"More and more are going to Australia or working part-time so they have more time away from work."
The GP, who did not want to be identified, said doctors are also mindful of the controversial case of Dr Hadiza Bawa-Garba, a doctor who was struck off after she was convicted of the manslaughter of six-year-old Jack Adcock in 2011. The decision was later overturned on appeal.
"When we come in the morning, we have to deal with dozens of phone calls, dozens of appointments and write hundreds of prescriptions," the GP added.
"Then we have to do house calls at lunchtime and then it's back again to do more appointments and then there are test results and chasing up hospital appointments.
"The pressure is ridiculous and then you look at cases like Bawa-Garba and it's no wonder that it is so difficult to attract younger doctors into general practice.
"GPs are genuinely terrified that they are going to make a serious mistake because of the pressure they're under.
"They are looking at the current situation and thinking if they don't end up in court, it will be the General Medical Council, and if it isn't that it will be the Ombudsman, the complaints system or something else."
The GP said family doctors are being swamped by bureaucracy and blamed the likes of welfare reform and the introduction of general data protection regulation (GDPR).
He said they are frequently contacted by patients wanting an unnecessary appointment regarding their PIP assessments.
He also said an increasing amount of time is being wasted following the introduction of new regulations about personal information.
"Under GDPR patients are entitled to a copy of their notes for free," he explained.
"Now you might think all that we have to do is get someone to photocopy them but it's not as simple as that.
"We have to redact any third party information; so for example if it's written into the notes that the patient said they were abused by their father or that their sister had cancer, that has to be removed.
"That means going through hundreds of pages of notes to make sure information is removed. A GP in England was actually fined £40,000 recently because they left in a telephone number in the notes.
"All of this adds up to make the workplace intolerable."
Chair of the British Medical Association's GP committee in Northern Ireland Dr Tom Black said he wasn't surprised to hear of recruitment issues.
"We warned this would happen years ago," he said.
"While we welcome the moves that have been made recently, we would like more to be done, including the likes of the second medical school.
"Patients need to understand that normal GP services will not be able to continue and we also need for them to make appropriate choices, such as using their pharmacist and not coming to GPs for over-the-counter medication."
The Department of Health said a number of steps have been implemented to address GP shortages and workload issues, including increasing the number of GP training places and the introducing practice-based pharmacists.
It said this year's GP contract investment was the largest since 2004, with nearly £22m made available for GPs and related services.
It also said a second medical school located at the University of Ulster's Magee campus is also under consideration.
However, a final decision on the matter can only be made by a Health Minister.