Another GP surgery in Northern Ireland has decided to hand back its contract, in what the BMA has called ‘a point of no return’ for general practice in the country.
The Department of Health confirmed that GPs at Brookeborough and Tempo Practice, which serves 7,600 patients, have given notice of their intention to withdraw from their contract to deliver general medical services in six months’ time.
It will now begin a process to develop ‘alternative arrangements’ for these services.
This is the 13th returned GP contract in Northern Ireland in the past year and the third in County Fermanagh since last summer, due to difficulties in attracting new doctors to the rural area, poor infrastructure and a lack of investment.
A spokesperson for the NI Department of Health said: ‘We want to reassure patients that the practice will continue to retain the contract to deliver GP services for the next six months.
‘Patients at the practice do not need to take any action. They should continue to contact the practice as normal. The department will be writing out to all practice patients to keep them informed as this process begins.’
Commenting on the announcement, BMA NI GP committee chair Dr Alan Stout told Pulse: ‘As we have long predicted, practices and GPs in Northern Ireland are getting to a point of no return.
‘The pressure and the lack of centralised support and planning is making general practice unstainable.
‘We have a huge workforce crisis and while we have younger GPs coming into the workforce we are losing too many older GPs through retirement and burnout. We are also struggling to make being a partner seem like an attractive career route.’
He noted that the problems are ‘particularly acute’ in the west of Northern Ireland where it is ‘even harder to recruit GPs’ and ‘the risks to other practices of a list dispersal are even more destabilising’.
‘We need to urgently resolve our workforce crisis and ensure that general practice has a sustainable future; we need to address the indemnity issue, stabilise the workload and move away from the narrative that GPs are working ‘part time’ or are closed to patients when GPs across Northern Ireland are doing the very best they can to meet demand,’ Dr Stout said.
At the end of January, the Department of Health has confirmed that the South Eastern Health and Social Care Trust – which runs acute and community hospitals as well as providing social care – has agreed to take on the contract for two GP surgeries, the Priory Surgery in Holywood and Springhill Surgery in Bangor.
According to a quarterly report on General Medical Services Statistics for Northern Ireland released earlier this month, there were 318 GP practices in Northern Ireland in December last year, one less than the year before – while there were 2,033,168 people registered with a practice, an increase of 0.7% on the same quarter in the previous year. In December 2018, the number of Northern Irish practices was 333.
Last summer, BMA NI chair Dr Tom Black warned that 22 GP practices in Northern Ireland were at risk of closure due to increased demand and loss of doctors. The Department of Health did not comment on how many practices were being assisted by its ‘crisis team’ in December.