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Northern Ireland needs to train more doctors to meet future needs

A report commissioned by the Department of Health has detailed the challenge facing the health service in Northern Ireland in providing enough doctors for the years ahead.

According to the review, the north needs an additional 100 medical students a year to meet demand.

Richard Pengelly, permanent secretary at the department, said this expansion in medical student numbers could cost an extra £30 million a year, money which he pointed out would have to be found in other areas of the health service.

Mr Pengelly also said the report raises long term, strategic and cross-cutting questions with major financial implications which will require decisions by ministers.

However, the reality is we cannot ignore the central recommendation on increasing the number of doctors being trained, nor can this report be allowed to gather dust while we await the return of Stormont.

It takes many years to train a doctor and even if everything is put in place for additional places in September 2020, it would be 2029 before a student emerges as a fully trained GP, and even longer for those working in key hospital specialisms.

As we know, there is already a dire shortage of GPs in Northern Ireland with practices closing in rural areas and patients finding it increasingly difficult to get an appointment.

So any further delays in training and recruitment can only make a bad situation worse as we see an ageing population putting enormous pressure on existing services.

Given the time scales involved in training staff, the report urges the authorities to look at other options including trying to bring back Northern Ireland doctors who are working in Britain or encouraging those who have retired early or taken career breaks to return to work.

As well as training extra doctors, it is obviously important to hold onto the staff we already have but we know there are medics who are choosing to go abroad, or take early retirement or leave the health service entirely.

In Saturday's Irish News, a senior hospital specialist told how he has decided to quit the NHS, citing political stagnation, a 'toxic' work environment and fears about Brexit.

Peter Maguire, a consultant anaesthetist at Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry, is critical of the bureaucracy involved in his job, which means less time with patients, as well as concerns over the availability of beds.

He contrasts his experience in Newry with that of a hospital in Monaghan, where he worked recently and which he found 'uplifting', saying he felt valued and appreciated.

The north's health service cannot afford to lose people like Dr Maguire, who has spent decades developing his skills and knowledge.

In planning for its future workforce, the health service not only needs to train more doctors but make sure it retains those already working in our hospitals and GP surgeries.

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