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Ambulance trust cuts out-of-hours GP winter shifts due to summer overspend

Exclusive The ambulance trust running the GP out-of-hours services in Dorset is reducing the number of doctors on shift over winter after overspending its budget earlier in the year.

GPs working for the service operated by the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust were informed of the decision in a letter received last month.

It said the decision to reduce staffing would affect the time period from 19 November until the end of March, with GPs already booked onto cancelled shifts advised to check if they could move to another shift.

The letter said: ‘The service currently is financially challenged, one of the reasons being the high number of incentive shifts we had to offer in the earlier part of this financial year, with particular focus on times where we felt we needed to bolster clinical resourcing. To rectify this we need to take a considered approach on how we can fund this gap.

‘The service has been operating for a number of years with an operating model which has exceeded the budget. Unsurprisingly, the deficit that this has generated has been subsidised through other areas of the Trust’s finances. For this reason we have formalised a financial recovery plan and part of this is reducing some GP clinical shifts from 19 November 2018 to 31 March 2019.’

The letter said the service would keep the cancelled shifts ‘under close review’, and that ‘if any particular shift is causing an issue we can review this’.

However, Pulse is told GPs working in the service believe the new shift pattern will lead to understaffing and patients being adversely affected.

A GP who wished to remain anonymous claimed it had already meant patients phoning 111 were waiting up to 18 hours for a call back with advice from an out-of-hours GP.

The GP told Pulse that – having handed out incentives to fill shifts this summer – the out-of-hours provider was now ‘cancelling huge swathes of shifts’. They highlighted that this comes ‘at a very odd time’, with the winter season just beginning.

The GP said: ‘They have cut down on GP numbers working overnight during the week and halved the cover on a Friday night, which I am just terrified about. Weekends are usually horrendous in the winter.

‘We are all horrified at what it’s going to potentially mean for the patients in Dorset.’

A spokesperson for the South Western Ambulance Service NHS Foundation Trust told Pulse: ‘Our patients are always our top priority. In order to provide the best service we can, we have reviewed the GP shifts across the Dorset out-of-hours service. This has resulted in those shifts with little or no patient activity being removed.’

He said this comes as the out-of-hours service had ‘experienced difficulty in filling some of the key GP shifts over recent months’ but said it was ‘expected that removing some of the quietest shifts will make it easier to fill the busiest shifts with our GP colleagues’.

The spokesperson said that the situation would be ‘kept under constant review’, adding: ‘As well as helping to cover our busiest shifts, the removal of those under-utilised shifts will enable us to manage our budget and our resources to best effect. 

‘These changes have been made to ensure that the service is within budget at the end of the financial year.’