All parties should commit to the future of general practice, the college has warned, while proposals to reform the service must be urgently funded.
The warning comes after the Northern Ireland GPC (NIGPC) said last week a mass resignation from the NHS would be inevitable without a funding agreement.
GP leaders have drawn up plans for general practice to continue outside of the national health service, including charging patients for consultations.
NIGPC chair Dr Tom Black has told GPonline they could begin collecting undated resignations from practices as early as this month after 97% of GPs voted to back the action in response to the workforce, workload and funding crisis threatening to collapse the service.
Last month the Sinn Fein health minister in the outgoing power-sharing executive Michelle O’Neill agreed a plan of action proposed by GPs which includes increasing training places and developing multidisciplinary teams.
But a funding agreement now looks increasingly unlikely after the government collapsed in the wake of the political fallout from a renewable heat scandal.
RCGPNI chair Dr Grainne Doran has written to all party leaders ahead of the March election calling for them to commit to supporting general practice.
Dr Doran's letter in full:
To all Political Party Leaders,
There are grave challenges and pressures facing the health and social care service in Northern Ireland. Patient waiting lists continue to grow, patient care is at risk and GP morale is plummeting.
General practice sits at the very heart of this. Family doctors provide vital care for every constituent across the region and families find support and comfort in the bonds they build with their local GP. There is nothing more valuable to people than good health.
Over the past few weeks, we have seen an alarming series of events unfold in Portadown. It is clear that there is no ‘quick fix’ to the recruitment and workload challenges we are facing but there are actions that we can take now to begin the journey to save general practice. The Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland welcomed the focus on primary care and general practice in Health Minister Michelle O’Neill’s ten year vision Health & Wellbeing 2026: Delivering Together and were pleased to see the Minister committing to implement the recommendations from the GP-led Working Group Report in December 2016, which was produced in March 2016 while Simon Hamilton was Health Minister. These commitments must be funded as a matter of urgency.
Patients and GPs simply do not have the luxury of another 12 months before we see progress on the ground. Patient demand is growing and the number of consultations carried out in general practice has increased significantly in ten years despite NI having the lowest number of GPs per head of population. Promises are not enough. Verbal commitments will not save Bannview and the many other practices across the region that are struggling to recruit and retain family doctors to meet the growing needs of our patients.
With an election looming in March, budget plans for allocating the much-needed investment in general practice and primary care, as promised by the Minister, are on hold. We may be able to press pause on our political institutions, but we cannot pause patient illness and we cannot risk the deterioration of our health service. Our patients deserve better than this.
RCGPNI is calling on political leaders in Northern Ireland to Put Patients First. Regardless of the outcome of the impending election, we are asking you to commit your Party to support the necessary reform of health and social care in Northern Ireland and to support the future of general practice. Individuals and families from across the region must be assured that their local primary health care services will be available for them in the future. The risk of losing GP services in local communities is frightening for individuals and families. Doctors are working under immense pressure to try to care for patients in their community - but there is only so much good will and so much extra work that doctors can offer before they burn out.
The College is committed to working with the government and key stakeholders to ensure the future of general practice is secured. We ask you for true leadership at this time, for unity across the political parties on health and social care - not to simply commit to change but to actively make it happen. We need you to rise to the challenge and invest in the future of our health service in real terms. You have the power to change the future. Work with us to make sure patients get the care and support they deserve.
Dr Grainne Doran