Northern Ireland news

Robin Swann announces £5.5m for general practice over winter

Health Minister Robin Swann. Picture by Matt Mackey/Press Eye/PA Wire
Rebecca Black, PA

A £5.5 million funding package is to be made available to support general practice in Northern Ireland over the winter period.

The Department of Health has committed £3.8 million to support additional patient care through the winter and up to £1.7 million to further improve telephony infrastructure and improve accessibility, such as the use of online systems for ordering repeat prescriptions, helping to free up telephone lines and staff time.

This is in addition to the £1.7 million already invested to upgrade GP telephony systems to improve telephone access.

The department said recent figures indicate that practice teams are carrying out almost 200,000 consultations on a weekly basis.

Health Minister Robin Swann said services across the health and social care system are under increasing pressure already ahead of what is expected to be a challenging winter.

“I recognise how important it is that people can access GP services when they need to do so,” he said.

“I must emphasise that GP practices have been open throughout the pandemic and will continue to use both face-to-face appointments and alternative consultation options for patients as appropriate.

“Services across health and social care are under increasing pressure and we know that this will be a challenging winter. Feedback from GPs indicates that many patients are presenting with more complex needs, particularly those who have a chronic disease, making it more difficult for them to see all the people they would wish to.”

Mr Swann said work is under way to help improve access to primary care services.

He said work is also under way on a review of GP trainee places, to make sure there are enough GPs to meet primary care needs into the future.

The minister added: “Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, primary care services were coming under increasing pressure.

“Figures in 2019 indicated patient contacts were almost 15 million per year, up from an estimated 12.7 million in 2014.

“At the same time, GP workforce, as measured in whole time equivalents, decreased by 8%.

“The pandemic has accelerated a trend that was already under way to make greater use of technology to help manage the increasing demand in primary care.

“It is important to emphasise that if people have symptoms or an unexplained illness or have any reason to be concerned, they should in the first instance contact their GP who will be able to provide advice.

“GPs want anyone who has a health concern to feel reassured that they will be able to get an appointment and see a GP if necessary. Every effort is being made to ensure that patients get the services they need.”

Dr Alan Stout, BMA NI GP committee chair, welcomed the announcement.

“Hopefully it will help some of the immediate pressures that GPs are facing as well as beginning to address some of the more systemic and complex issues, including the number of GP trainee places available,” he said.

“General practice has not closed and never closed. Consultation rates and the number of patients contacting their surgery continue to be high and the current system is struggling to cope.

“All of our staff are feeling the pressure and we recognise that the difficulty in access and delays in seeing your GP cause frustration to patients. But we really are doing our best.

“This funding will help us address some immediate issues around telephony and the issues patients face in contacting their surgery.

“Combined with the expanded rollout of multi-disciplinary teams and improvements to out of hours we are confident that patients will see improvements and equally importantly GPs will feel under less pressure and able to focus on what they do best, caring for patients.”

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