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Health service reform urgently needed

Co Antrim GP Dr John McSparran is the latest experienced medical practitioner to express a deep sense of frustration at the current state of the health service in Northern Ireland.

For more than 20 years he has been based in the Glens of Antrim Medical Centre in Cushendall, a practice that has seen patient numbers increase significantly since the closure of a neighbouring surgery in Glenarm, following the retirement of its only doctor.

It is a story we are hearing all too often. Rural surgeries are shutting down as doctors retire and there are insufficient numbers of GPs being trained to replace them.

It is a situation that is expected to deteriorate further given the difficulties in attracting young doctors into general practice.

But it is not just the additional pressure on remaining surgeries that is the issue.

Dr McSparran, in an interview with this newspaper earlier this week, is exasperated by some of the administrative decisions being taken by the health care authorities.

He is scathing about the layers of bureaucracy that can surround even a request for vital equipment for terminally ill patients.

As he points out, in the past he was able to speak directly to a district nurse and have the request actioned immediately whereas now he has to write a letter of referral which, as he puts it, 'could sit languishing in an administrative system.'

The GP is particularly concerned about the impact waiting times are having on his patients. A formerly active 90-year-old, Danny Murphy, has been waiting four years for a hip replacement.

Meanwhile, a patient with suspected cancer could wait a minimum of three months to see a consultant, instead of the two week target.

Such is his exasperation that Dr McSparran tells patients who can afford it to pay for private treatment.

Many patients and GPs will share the doctor's dismay at the myriad of problems within our health service.

Unfortunately, these issues, including unacceptable waiting lists, will only get worse unless we get on with much-needed reforms.

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