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GP services in Northern Ireland ‘in crisis’

GP services in Northern Ireland are in crisis, with burnout leading to problems retaining doctors, according to a new report.

The survey of 200 family doctors by the Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland found that doctors were working “harder than ever, past the point of exhaustion” but could not manage the demand for their services.

Better pay and conditions just over the border in the Republic of Ireland are helping to attract potential recruits.

The problems are put down to a variety of factors, including an aging population, rising rates of multiple conditions, Northern Ireland’s chronic waiting lists and the impact of Covid.

Since March last year, 25 practices across Northern Ireland have handed back contracts or closed a practice branch site.

That leaves just 317 active GP practices, a reduction of 9% since 2014.

As the number of practices has gone down, the number of patients registered has gone up.

The average number of registered patients per practice has increased from 5,500 to 6,439 since 2014.

Dr Ursula Mason, a GP in the greater Belfast area and Chair of the RCGP Northern Ireland, said GP services need to be funded better with other measures to help in the short-term.

“We need a practitioner health programme to support clinicians in crisis amid increasing rates of burnout.

“We need tangible interventions addressing the burden of workload in general practice, to improve the efficiency and safety of our services, and the provision of support for practices at risk of collapse.”

The report found that the age profile of GPs was increasing. The average age of Nothern Ireland GPs is 45. More than one in five are 55+ and some younger GPs are moving elsewhere.

Some doctors in border areas reported that more attractive working conditions in the Republic of Ireland and the faster referral pathways available there, contributed to problems in retaining GPs.

“As we consider how best to keep highly valued GPs working in Northern Ireland, we must also be cognisant of the factors that make working elsewhere more attractive,” the report found.

“This is particularly relevant in Northern Ireland given that we share a land border with the Republic of Ireland.

“In the Republic of Ireland there has been a significant investment in Sláintecare, and the terms and conditions are far superior to those offered in Northern Ireland.”

The report said there was unnecessary bureaucracy surrounding GPs from the Republic being able to get jobs in Northern Ireland.

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