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One in five GP training places in Northern Ireland remain unfilled

Around 20% of GP training places in Northern Ireland are unfilled this academic year.

The number of training places available in the region is 111, but 23 remain empty.

Previously there were far fewer training places on offer, but the country’s Department of Health raised the number from 65 in 2015/16 to 111 from 2018/19.

GPs have warned more needs to be done to attract recruits to the region – but Government officials say they are ‘hopeful that further applicants will be recruited for February 2020’.

BMA Northern Ireland GP Committee chair Dr Alan Stout said this was the ‘first time in many, many years’ that the posts had not been filled.

He said: ‘We have the ability to train more but we’re not filling them. So, there is a piece of work still to do to attract young doctors into those training posts, but also then to make sure we are retaining people that we are training.

He said more needed to be done to reassure potential recruits that working in the country was not more costly than in other parts of the UK.

This false perception may be being driven by recent changes in England and Wales, where GPs now have their indemnity paid for by the NHS, he said.

Dr Stout said: ‘We’ve got to make sure we’re not appearing more expensive to work in than the rest of the UK.

‘The reality of that [GP indemnity not being paid for by the Government in Northern Ireland] is not really coming out in terms of headline figures for take-home pay or anything like that because it’s part of a larger equation.’

County Antrim GP Dr John McSparran said the unfilled training places are part of an ongoing workforce crisis in the area.

He said: ‘It would be wrong to presume that this would be an indicator that a major crisis is coming. That crisis is already here as many of us currently working in general practice are only too aware of, particularly in Northern Ireland.

‘The particularly worrying thing about this is that nothing seems to be getting done that might indicate that this crisis could be resolved in the immediate future.’

He added: ‘Training more doctors is one thing, but if we are already unable to fill GP training positions, that is unlikely to help unless specific problems facing GPs are addressed.’

The BMA has previously warned the Northern Irish health system ‘cannot cope’ unless the country’s devolved Government is restored.

Chair of the RCGP in Northern Ireland, Dr Grainne Doran, said: ‘General practice has been facing severe workforce challenges for many years. These challenges have resulted in increased workloads for GPs who are already extremely stretched and, in some cases, has led to practices being forced to close their doors.

‘While we welcomed last year’s increase in available GP training places to 111, further work must be carried out if we are to ensure that every available place is filled.’

A Department of Health spokesperson said: ‘The annual intake to the Northern Ireland GP training programme has been significantly expanded over recent years, from 65 places available in 2015/16 to 111 places available since 2018/19.

‘While 88 have joined in the 2019/20 programme so far, the department is hopeful that further applicants will be recruited for February 2020.’

They added: ‘All trainees have their full indemnity costs reimbursed by the deanery.’