Doctors warn GP seven-day working not possible
NORTHERN Ireland's biggest doctors' union has warned that plans to introduce seven-day working across the NHS will be impossible for GP surgeries.
The British Medical Association (BMA) say the British government's pledge to have a "truly seven-day NHS" by April next year is flawed for family doctors due to the pressures in the sector.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the BMA's GP committee, said the north's surgeries would be hardest hit by the move due to lower numbers of staff and increased demand.
Northern Ireland has the oldest GP workforce in the NHS and is experiencing severe difficulties in recruiting new trainees.
Latest figures show there has been a 63 per cent increase in patient consultations over the past decade - with more than 12.7 million a year.
While health policy is a a devolved issue for the north, there are concerns that the British government's proposals could be extended across the entire NHS.
In January a major review on the Northern Ireland health service by Sir Liam Donaldson warned of the impact of reduced staff cover on patient outcomes after 5pm and at weekends.
While the Department of Health has given an additional £15m cash injection for GP services this year, union leaders say more needs to be done to address the underlying causes of lengthy waiting lists.
Dr Black said: "The crisis facing GPs across the NHS is mirrored in Northern Ireland. However the picture is almost bleaker here, we have the lowest number of GPs per head of the population and the lowest funding compared to anywhere else, but we have the highest demand for services.
"Alongside this is a rise of 217 per cent in the number of test results dealt with by practices and the issuing of 39 million prescription items to patients.
"GPs are in a situation where they are having to make tough choices about the services they are able to deliver. Out-of-hours services are becoming unsustainable, whilst recruitment and retention issues coupled with rising workloads means that there is little to no capacity left in the system."
The Derry-based medic also said he didn't believe there was enough patient demand for GP surgeries to open at weekends.
Earlier this month the north's Chief Medical Officer and interim chief executive of the Belfast Trust, Dr Michael McBride, accepted there need for more senior doctors on the hospital floor on a round-the-clock basis.
"I think we need senior decision makers on hospital wards at weekends, we need senior decision makers maintaining the flow of patients," Dr McBride told The Irish News.
Responding to the GP concerns, health minister, Simon Hamilton said he "fully appreciates" the current challenges within the service and the critical role of GPs in delivering care.
"My department and I remain committed to working...to identify opportunities to address the current and future challenges in Primary Care."