Northern Ireland news

GP practice takeovers could be 'option' for other struggling surgeries

Bannview Medical Practice in Portadown will be relaunched as Beechwood Family Practice on September 1 following its takeover a group of GPs
Seanín Graham

THE takeover of a troubled Co Armagh GP practice by a private company could be an "option" for other struggling surgeries, according to a doctor involved in the project.

In what is believed to be the first move of its kind in the NHS, a GP Federation will run the Bannview medical practice in Portadown following months of negotiations between health service officials and doctors.

Federations, which describe themselves as "community interest non-profit companies", were set up in 2014 and are made up exclusively of GPs.

Bannview's name will change to Beechwood Family Practice on September 1 under the new initiative.

With more than 5,000 patients on its book, the surgery will be staffed by two lead doctors following a period of severe instability.

The Southern health trust began managing the surgery in 2017 - the first time a trust had ever run a GP practice in the north - after its last remaining GP resigned saying she simply "couldn't cope" working 12 to14 hour days with no breaks.

The trust mainly used locum doctors and gave notice of its contract to the Health and Social Care Board earlier this year.

Dr Arnie McDowell, who chairs the Southern GP Federation Support Unit (FSU), said that if they hadn't stepped in, Bannview would have closed and caused chaos for neighbouring practices dealing with thousands of new patients.

He stressed the takeover was not "long-term", describing it as a "joint project" between four FSU groups who formed a "separate limited company specifically for the purpose".

"Our plan is very much for this to be a stabilising, holding and rebuilding operation hopefully with the view to re-launching it in two to three years as a normal practice with GP partners and run on a normal basis," Dr McDowell told The Irish News.

"For the patients, it will mean more continuity as doctors will there on a regular basis. There will be two main lead GPs supported by others and we are confident we will have more regular cover and a better skills mix.

"But this is not the long-term plan. It’s important to say that. I don’t think our member practices of federations would have supported this if we were in the business of taking over and running practices long-term."

However, he conceded that it could be a "template" for "managing comparable situations in the future".

"It will not be the first go-to idea when surgeries are in trouble - but it adds another option. It something that wasn’t available four years ago as federations were so young," Dr McDowell added.

"So yes, It could happen again. It’s not viewed as the panacea but it’s another tool in the armoury to buy time. But it only works if the fundamentals of the practice are viable, if it’s big enough and likely to attract partners in the future. It’s on a case by case basis."

He added: "While rescue remedies are welcome, what we need is the fundamental change to stabilise the workforce - the number of GPs in training etc and keeping the eye on the ball in terms of making general practice an attractive career.

"The main aim is not to go round putting fires out but recruiting and retaining doctors."

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