Northern Ireland

‘Working as a doctor is too difficult to be badly paid’ - Senior NI medic warns of brain drain to the Republic without proper funding

Dr Tom Black was making his final speech in Belfast after six years as BMA NI Council Chair

BMA Northern Ireland petition
Dr Tom Black of the BMA (BMA NI/PA)

NORTHERN Ireland will continue to lose doctors to the Republic without urgent investment, a senior medic has warned.

In his final speech as BMA NI Council Chair, Dr Tom Black was addressing a conference at the Waterfront in Belfast attended by more than 500 BMA representatives from across the UK.

The annual event sees representatives debate and pass new policies as well as electing new members.

Highlighting that Northern Ireland has the highest waiting lists in the UK and Ireland, he said healthcare workers were increasingly suffering stress and burnout.

“If I sound angry, I am angry,” he said.

He said the retention of doctors had been increasingly frustrated by superior terms and conditions elsewhere, particularly through Sláintecare in the Republic, the UK and the rest of the world.

With a “perfect storm of lack of funding, understaffing and huge waiting lists,” he said that instead of bold solutions there was a slide towards the “inevitable use of the private sector for waiting list backlogs and better cross border working.”

He continued: “We can’t survive against Sláintecare. Some of our trusts are running consultant vacancies of 44%.

“Why, (because) you can earn twice as much money on a very short commute across the border.

“This job working as a doctor in the NHS is too difficult and too important to be badly paid.”

Stepping down from his BMA role after six years, he said hopes of transforming the health service had been frustrated by the pandemic and “political chaos,” meaning that any changes were unplanned or piecemeal.

“What I hope we see now is a period of political stability, when we can really address the issues there are in health here. I know some of those conversations won’t be easy, but we have to be realistic about what we can currently do, while at the same time trying to plan for a better NHS.”

Following his speech, the representatives passed a motion calling on the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to ensure that pay, terms and conditions were competitive with Sláintecare in the Republic, as “failure to do this will mean we will lose experienced doctors in Northern Ireland.”

Dr David Farren, chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland Consultants Committee, also set out the challenges.

With consultants in the Republic on a starting salary of £189,000 sterling and moving up to £217,000 within six years, he said it had “fundamentally” affected the medical labour market on the island of Ireland.

“Ask any consultant from Northern Ireland, they will tell you they know someone that has moved across the border,” he said.

Dr Philip Banfield, Chairman of the BMA Council. PICTURE: BMA
Dr Philip Banfield, Chairman of the BMA Council. PICTURE: BMA

Earlier on Monday, it was announced that the BMA was taking legal action against the General Medical Council over the “dangerous blurring of the lines between doctors and MAPs (physicians associates)”.

The BMA’s national chairperson, Dr Philip Banfield, told the delegates “if you want to be a doctor, go to medical school.”

“Specifically, we are challenging their frankly unsafe use of the term ‘medical professionals’ when referring to people who are not doctors, and that Good Medical Practice cannot be common to both doctors and MAPs,” he said.

He added: “We have had enough of the government and NHS leadership eroding our profession. We are standing up for both doctors and patients to block this ill-thought-through project - before it leads to more unintended patient harm. It’s not too late to row back from this uncontrolled experiment in dumbing down the medical skills and expertise available to patients.”

Referencing the first ever junior doctor strikes in Northern Ireland this year, he also said the consultants in the north “made history” by organising their first ever strike for Wednesday, which was called off after the Executive “has seen sense” and offered immediate talks.

He also noted that an indicative ballot of speciality (SAS) doctors in Northern Ireland had an 86% backing for industrial action, with a formal ballot to open shortly.