GPs in Northern Ireland may reduce services as winter crisis looms

GPs in Northern Ireland have warned that practices may be forced to cut opening hours, reduce services and limit face-to-face appointments this winter as the profession struggles to cope with a severe crisis.

In an open letter to patients across Northern Ireland, the country's GPC chair Dr Tom Black has urged those with minor illness over the winter period to avoid visiting their GP if at all possible.

Chronic underfunding - exacerbated by the collapse of the power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland - a workforce crisis and the highest-ever average patient lists have left GPs fearing they will be unable to cope as winter pressures mount.

Patients have been warned that practices are already unable to sustain the current level of workload they face, and that reduced services may be unavoidable over winter. Those with sore throats, coughs and colds have been asked to treat themselves at home, and to visit a pharmacist in the first instance rather than a GP.

The health service is anticipating a 'severe influenza epidemic' this winter, the GPC letter warns, urging patients eligible for flu jabs to make sure they are vaccinated.

Flu epidemic

Dr Black hit out at the 'abject failure' of politicians to address the crisis facing general practice in Northern Ireland.

His letter warns: 'Over the winter months GPs and their staff will do their best to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable patients, however it is only fair to warn you that some practices may have to cut their opening hours, stop routine services, deal with cases over the phone or send patients directly to hospital in order to manage workload.

"To help manage workload we would encourage patients, where possible, to deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home. Your local pharmacy should be your first point of call for these minor issues.'

The Northern Ireland GP chair said that the country’s GPs had been 'left with no choice but to be honest with their patients on what lies ahead'.

'The problems in general practice have not gone away, and without a functioning devolved government they are getting worse,' he said.

'No funding, no new GPs coming through and the largest average patient list size we’ve ever had; we therefore owe it to our patients to be honest about what potentially lies ahead this winter and ask for their support. GPs and staff will continue to do their best to maintain vital services for those in most need.'

Read Dr Black's letter in full:

It is well known that GP services across Northern Ireland are facing unprecedented pressure in terms of increased workload and a severe shortage of doctors. The abject failure of local politicians to address these issues has exacerbated an already critical situation.

Over the winter months GPs and their staff will do their best to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable patients, however it is only fair to warn you that some practices may have to cut their opening hours, stop routine services, deal with cases over the phone or send patients directly to hospital in order to manage workload.

To help manage workload we would encourage patients, where possible, to deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home. Your local pharmacy should be your first point of call for these minor issues.

We would also encourage everyone who is eligible to get their flu vaccine as we expect the influenza epidemic to be severe this winter.

This crisis in GP services has been caused by a lack of funding, a huge increase in workload and a failure to attract young doctors into general practices. The average GP is now responsible for the care of 2,000 patients.

Dr Tom Black, BMA Northern Ireland GPC chair

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