Northern Ireland news

Rural GP hits out at Department of Health's 'ludicrous lack of insight into how general practice functions'

GP John McSparran has hit out at a funding cut to a practice in the Glens of Antrim. Picture by Hugh Russell

A RURAL GP has said it is "totally outrageous" for the Department of Health to suggest that patients who cannot attend his surgery due to poor transport links can get home visits.

The Glens of Antrim Medical Centre in Carnlough is only opening two half days a week because of a reduction in funding from the Department of Health.

The practice, which has a main surgery in Cushendall, took on almost 1,400 new patients after a GP retired in Glenarm in 2017.

A public meeting was held in Carnlough on Wednesday night to lobby for a reversal of the funding reduction.

Protesters pointed to poor transport links in the area and said some patients would struggle to visit the Cushendall surgery.

The Department of Health said: "For those patients who cannot make it into the main or the branch surgery, house calls will still be offered by the practice."

Dr John McSparran, who works at the practice, said it would be "completely unreasonable" to offer home visits to patients who cannot attend the surgery.

"The very suggestion that anyone with transport issues could get a home visit demonstrates a ludicrous lack of insight into how general practice functions," he said.

"Home visits are immensely time-consuming activities.

"It would take 20 minutes for us to get to Carnlough, spend 15 or 20 minutes with the patient, then take 20 minutes to get back.

"That's one hour for one home visit."

He said GPs normally set aside 10 minutes for each patient.

"Home visits are limited - you can't do a blood test, you can't do an ecg," he said.

"They need to be for people who are terminally ill or who are confined to their house."

Dr McSparran said a move to home visits would set a dangerous precedent for under-pressure rural practices.

He added that partners at the practice had taken a "very significant financial hit" to keep services going.

The Department of Health said it offered the practice additional funding for a nurse to provide treatment room services for five half days a week at the Carnlough surgery.

However, Dr McSparran said the idea would be "unworkable" without a receptionist or doctor present.

In a letter to The Irish News, Dr Margaret O'Brien, head of general medical services, said Glens of Antrim Medical Centre "continues to receive the same level of funding per patient as every GP practice across Northern Ireland".

She said the practice received an additional payment after it took on the new patients.

But she said this money was only supposed to last for three years and was extended for a fourth year "in light of specific pandemic-related pressures".

"Making the temporary arrangement permanent would actually be unfair on other GP practices and would indeed have to be financed at the expense of other practices," she said.

"Today, Glens of Antrim Medical Centre continues to receive the standard GP funding, for their entire patient population including the additional patients from 2017.

"We also continue to fund in full the rent and rates for the branch surgery premises in Carnlough."

She added: "All rural practices face challenges with patient access and geography.

"Glens of Antrim Medical Centre provides a vital and much valued service to its patients and we will continue to work closely with them."

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