Pressure in general practice is such that becoming a GP partner is no longer an attractive career option, the chair of the BMA Northern Ireland’s GPC has said.
Dr Alan Stout’s comments came after a quarterly report on General Medical Services Statistics for Northern Ireland was published this week.
The report showed that the number of practices in the nation is declining while the number of patients appears to be rising.
According to the figures, there were 318 GP practices in Northern Ireland in December last year, one less than the year before – while there were 2,033,168 people registered with a practice, an increase of 0.7% on the same quarter in the previous year. In December 2018, the number of Norther Irish practices was 333.
But GPs in Northern Ireland are ‘firefighting’ and managing a crisis that goes beyond these numbers, Dr Stout said.
He pointed out that the past six months have been ‘some of the most stressful the profession has gone through.’
Dr Stout said: ‘These figures clearly show the immense amount of work that has gone into protecting GP services for the population.
‘Despite 12 contract hand-backs a service for patients has been maintained in all but one of these practices.
‘This is true firefighting and crisis management, and we now have to make sure that we have a long term stabilisation plan to sustain the service.’
He also said that the nation is seeing a steady increase in the number of patients registered in each practice, but that funding is not matching this increase.
He said: ‘We simply do not have enough staff or resources to deal with the workload expected of us and this has resulted in unprecedented levels of contract hand-backs.
‘This could have been avoided had action been taken when we had asked for it a decade ago.’
The report also shows there 1,433 GPs contracted to GP practices in December last year, an increase of 0.7% when compared to December the year before, but Dr Stout said the small increase does not paint an accurate picture of the current workforce crisis.
He said: ‘This is simply a headcount number that tells a different story when you look behind the figures.
‘Pressure in general practice is such that becoming a GP partner with its associated responsibilities is no longer an attractive career option.
‘It is therefore no surprise that a significant number of newly-qualified GPs are either opting to work as locums for increased flexibility and autonomy, or work less than full-time for portfolio careers with other specialties or because of family commitments.
‘A part-time GP in Northern Ireland actually works 40 hours a week, which you simply would not class as part-time in any other profession. The narrative that GPs are closed and not seeing patients is simply not true and is demoralising.’
Dr Stout also called for urgent intervention into general practice to stop the level of contract hand-backs.
He said: ‘There are many short term interventions the Department of Health could do now to halt this crisis even in the absence of a health minister and functioning Assembly: freeze QOF, address spiralling indemnity costs and simplify what is being asked of practices to ensure maximum access.
‘Long-term, we need the assembly back and running to ring-fence a multi-year health budget, implement the full and fair roll-out of MDTs in all areas of Northern Ireland and to address unfair pension taxation rules.’
Earlier this month, it was announced that two GP surgeries in Northern Ireland would be taken over by a healthcare trust, after failing to find new doctors to run them.
In August last year, the current GP partners at Priory Surgery in Holywood, which incorporates Springhill Surgery in Bangor, announced that they would be handing back their contract to health bosses at the beginning of this year.
The practices, which together provide GP services for almost 15,000 patients, said they would stop providing General Medical Services from 1 February, should no new doctors be found.
Last summer, BMA NI chair Dr Tom Black warned that 22 GP practices in Northern Ireland were at risk of closure due to increased demand and loss of doctors.
The Department of Health did not comment on how many practices were being assisted by the department’s ‘crisis team’ in December.