Nearly one fifth of GP specialty training places for this year are currently unfilled in Northern Ireland, despite the course starting this month.
There are 121 funded places for 2023/24, but only 99 have so far been filled, according to the Department of Health.
Last year, then-health minister Robin Swann committed to increasing the number of places by 10 from 111 to 121 for the year 2022/23, and this commitment has been further extended to cover this academic year.
The department has said the uptake of specialty places is ‘regrettable’ but that it aims to recruit the remaining trainees for a second start date in February next year.
In England, the Government has recently hailed ‘another strong year’ for GP recruitment, with a 99.83% fill rate in round 1 and 2, which brings the total number of trainees to 3,427.
According to Health Education England (HEE) figures, in 2021 Northern Ireland had a 98.17% fill rate, with 109 of the 111 places being filled.
Deputy chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland GPC Dr Frances O’Hagan said this year’s GP specialty training figures ‘are concerning for the future of general practice’.
She said: ‘New GPs are coming through, but this number is not keeping up with the number of older GPs we are losing to retirement and burnout.
‘We simply do not have the workforce to deal with growing patient numbers and workload demand. Urgent action needs to be taken by the department now to address this before we are past the point of no return.’
A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘It is regrettable that not all the funded GP training places have been filled yet for the 2023/24 year.
‘However, further recruitment into this programme is underway for a February 2024 start date.
‘Significant efforts are being made by NIMDTA [Northern Ireland Medical and Dental Training Agency], including a proactive communications campaign, targeting doctors who have completed the Northern Ireland Medical Foundation Programme within the past three years, particularly those currently working locally as locums, or abroad on short term contracts, who are now thinking of settling on a GP career.’
Previously there were far fewer GP training places on offer, but the department raised the number from 65 in 2014/15 to 111 from 2018/19.
In May, the BMA NI called for urgent action to save general practice, after the 15th GP practice in a year handed back its contract.