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Belfast practice to close and another ends contract as city succumbs to GP crisis

A GP practice in Belfast will close next month and another is to end its contract as the city begins to feel the full effect of the national GP workforce crisis.

Ravenbank Surgery in east Belfast announced to patients in January via its website that it will close on 31 March.

The surgery said patients living within the practice boundary will be allocated a new GP by Northern Ireland’s national Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) – but those outside of the boundary will need to locate a new doctor themselves.

Meanwhile, Antrim Road Medical Centre, which currently has two GP partners, has announced it will hand over its contract to the HSCB at the end of June after ongoing struggles to recruit another partner.

The HSCB said it is advertising for another practice to take over the centre, which serves 7,000 people, and ‘will ensure that patients will continue to have access to GP services after this date [June 2020]’.

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA Northern Ireland’s GP Committee, told Pulse that the problems are ‘not specific to Belfast’ but that closures in the city – which should be least affected compared with other regions – are ‘most worrying’.

In March, Dr Stout warned that ‘truly frightening’ GP workforce problems were beginning to spread to all regions of Northern Ireland – with even the capital city starting to buckle under the pressure.

GPs at Antrim Road Medical Centre said in a statement on their website that the two remaining partners have had to resign from their contract after advertising to replace a retired partner since 2016 ‘without success’.

They added: ‘The persisting crisis in the NHS has had a huge impact on general practice. With an ageing population and the complex medical needs of patients rising, we have seen a significant increase in the demands on GP surgeries.

‘We have also seen a large number of GPs retiring from the profession and a huge decrease in the number of GPs willing to take on partnership positions in practice.’

Dr Stout told Pulse that there have been a number of closures and mergers both ‘in Belfast and beyond’.

He said: ‘It’s not something specific to Belfast and actually it’s most worrying when it is Belfast. Belfast was always the area that we knew was going to be last to be affected, because that is where we have the largest concentration of doctors and other staff.’

He added that despite measures put in place to stabilise struggling practices – such as multidisciplinary teams (MDTs) and a contingency plan that allows practices to revert to core services to stay ‘viable’ while a longer-term solution is found – the country is ‘still having real difficulties in terms of sustaining practice’.

Dr Stout said: ‘What is very worrying is that quite often it’s a practice that had no idea that it was in difficulty and it’s some short-term thing such as a full-time partner going off [work] dealing with an illness.

‘It can be something as simple as that that they haven’t anticipated that just tips them over because the capacity and fall-back position just isn’t there.’

 Dr Laurence Dorman, chair of the RCGP in Northern Ireland, said that the two potential closures are ‘terrible news’ for GPs, their teams and their patients and called for urgent investment into general practice.

He said: ‘Unfortunately, [the closures] are not surprising. From 2014-2019, 23 other GP practices have closed or merged across Northern Ireland and we know there is a risk of more closures this financial year.’

In September, it was revealed that one in five GP training places in Northern Ireland remained unfilled and GPs warned that more would need to be done to attract new recruits to the area.