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Urgent call for more GP training places

Suzanne McGonagle s.mcgonagle@irishnews.com

GENERAL practice is "on a cliff edge" as a falling number of surgeries struggle to meet demand, it has been warned.

The Royal College of General Practitioners in Northern Ireland called for an immediate increase in training places amid fears for the future of patient care. It said there is already of shortage of 234 family doctors across the north and the 65 places allocated for GP training each year will not deliver the number needed for a growing and ageing population.

The body is calling for training places to be increased annually to 111 over the next four years - with an initial increase to 80 this year.

It also said Stormont health minister Jim Wells and the department of health should consider incentives to recruit new GPs and retain existing doctors, with schemes such as maternity leave for GP locums.

It comes a month after the college revealed that the number of GP practices in Northern Ireland had shrunk to the lowest level in nearly a quarter of a century.

Each GP surgery is, on average, now providing care to 500 more people compared to 10 years ago.

Over the last decade, the number of registered patients has risen by 125,182 to 1.92m in 2013/14, yet the number of GP surgeries has fallen to the lowest number since 1991. Dr John O'Kelly, chair of Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, warned the "consistent failure to invest in local GP services is putting patient care at risk". "It is vitally important that the minister grasps the nettle and urgently boosts the number of training places before the February 25 deadline for trainee applications," he said. "Northern Ireland has a GP shortage of at least 20 per cent, which equates to 234 family doctors. "This is having a significant impact on patient care, as waiting times to get a GP appointment continue to spiral. "This is the third workforce review in the past eight years. Previous recommendations to increase GP training numbers as soon as possible have not been implemented. "There are not enough junior doctors entering the profession whilst nearly a quarter of our GPs are over 55 and approaching retirement. "General practice is on a cliff edge and action is needed now."

Dr O'Kelly, above, added: "Measures are needed to recruit, retain and encourage return to the profession. If this workforce crisis is not immediately addressed, we will not have sufficient numbers of family doctors and patient care will suffer."

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