Workforce crisis slashes 500,000 GP appointments in Northern Ireland

Practices in Northern Ireland are delivering 500,000 fewer appointments per year than two years ago with GP numbers per head of population now below 1950s levels, the BMA has warned.

In his final speech as chair of GPC Northern Ireland, Dr Tom Black warned that the country's political vacuum had left general practice close to collapse.

He told the conference: 'We have 336 GP practices in Northern Ireland, down from 365 a few years ago. Half of the practices in Fermanagh have disappeared this year and we’re seeing mergers and closures of practices in all six counties.

'There are different views as to whether the GP crisis is due to the inadequate funding, a crisis of confidence in the workforce or due to excessive workload.'

GP workforce

He added: 'We have fewer GPs per head of the population than we had in the 1950s and we now have more than 2,000 patients per whole-time equivalent GP in Northern Ireland.'

Dr Black hit out at chronic underfunding of general practice in Northern Ireland, warning that GPs in the country receive the lowest funding anywhere in the UK. 'If we were given a 50% uplift to GP funding over the next three years we would still lag behind England by 10%.

'Workload in terms of consultations has actually decreased by 500k over the last 2 years because of the workforce crisis. Other work such as prescriptions, blood tests and paperwork continues to increase.

'Young doctors are reluctant to take up a career in general practice as they feel that the job is no longer doable.'

Power sharing

Dr Black said that a plan to improve general practice was signed off by Northern Ireland's then-health minister Michelle O'Neill in December 2016, but has yet to be implemented after the collapse of the power-sharing government.

'It hasn’t been implemented because there is no budget, no health minister and no Assembly.

'This political vacuum has resulted in a GP service close to collapse, maintained only by the professional values, goodwill and resilience of our members.'

Dr Black highlighted good progress on developing federations led by GPs, but warned that the profession faced 'seismic changes' in coming years and would need to be resilient, flexible and adaptable.

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