The number of GP practices in Northern Ireland has fallen by 17 since 2014, according to new research.
Data from the Health and Social Care’s Business Services Organisation found that the number of GP practices has fallen by 5% over the past four years, from 350 active in Northern Ireland in 2014 to 333 as of 31 March 2018.
The average patient list size also increased by 8% since 2014, meaning the average number of patients registered to a practice in the region was 5,926 as of March 2018.
The report said the change was due to both closures and mergers.
Out of the five local commissioning groups in Northern Ireland, Western LCG had the largest decrease in GP practices, with a 16% drop between 2014 and 2018. South Eastern LCG was the only one not to see a decrease in the number of practices during the period.
Chair of the RCGP Northern Ireland, Dr Grainne Doran, said: ‘Falling numbers of GP practices has been an ongoing trend in Northern Ireland in recent years.
‘Unfortunately, this reflects the difficulties with recruiting to smaller, often rural, practices and we are now starting to see this spread to urban areas. Close observation of the impact of this is required in relation to the delivery of patient care and patient satisfaction.’
The data also showed there was a 12% increase in the number of GPs in the region since 2014, to 1,323. However, these figures cover headcount and not full time equivalent.
Dr Doran said the headcount figures did not fully reflect the situation in the region, as it did not account for GPs who worked part time.
‘The figures only account for GP headcount and do not reflect whole time equivalency or the number of GPs working in GP practices. Many of our GPs have portfolio careers and work in various environments including secondary care but are counted as GPs in statistics,’ she said.
Dr Doran also called on the Government to consider ‘modern working patterns’ in the workforce strategy so that they have an accurate picture of the GPs needed to provide services to patients in the community.
The report also found there was a 36% increase in the number of female GPs, with 55% of GPs in Northern Ireland now female, compared to 46% in 2014.
It comes after the RCGP warned that over 750 practices across the UK could close within the next five years because of GPs approaching retirement. In Northern Ireland, it said the number of practices closing could be as many as 29.
BMA GP Committee chair Dr Alan Stout said: ‘The reduction in the number of GP practices in Northern Ireland is something we have been warning about for many years.
‘One of the main factors for this fall is practice mergers, which has led to an increase in average number of registered patients in each practice.’
He added that although headcount numbers were up, in reality many GPs are now choosing to work part time ‘which is why we still need more GPs to cover the outstanding hours’.
Last month, Pulse reported that the town of Dungannon was reaching a GP ‘tipping point’, as a 9,000-patient practice has been forced to hand back its contract.