Urgent action needs to be taken to save GP services in Northern Ireland, the British Medical Association has said.
The Department of Health has confirmed that Cullybackey Health Centre in Co Antrim is the latest service to announce that it is handing its contract back. The department said it would now begin a process to secure alternative arrangements to ensure patients are not left without a GP service. It is the 15th practice to hand back its contract in Northern Ireland within the past year.
New contractors have been appointed to a number of the practices affected.
GP Service 'Will Not Be the Last to Fall'
Dr Alan Stout, BMA NI GP committee chair, said: "This is becoming an increasingly desperate situation for general practice in Northern Ireland, its staff and the patients we care for."
Dr Stout said the latest announcement would affect more than 7000 staff.
"Such is the speed and number of these contract hand-backs – 15 in the past year alone, affecting tens of thousands of patients – that this is in danger of becoming the norm," he added. "This is far from a normal situation and is hugely significant for all patients, staff, GPs and the local communities they serve."
Dr Stout said the the risks to other neighbouring practices of a list dispersal "are even more destabilising".
"This practice will not be the last to fall and is the fourth practice in this locale to hand back its contract," he pointed out.
Dr Stout said primary care was the "most basic function" of the health service, and warned that "if it fails, then the whole NHS will fail".
He added: "Urgent action needs to be taken now to save general practice before we are past the point of no return."
In the short term, he explained, urgent action would mean stabilising workloads, correcting funding allocations to meet current demand, removing disproportionate admin requirements, and addressing indemnity rates. In the long term, he said the NI workforce crisis needs "meaningful action and the required funding". A number of practices have struggled to recruit GPs to fill several vacancies.
"New GPs are coming through, but this number is not keeping up with the amount of older GPs we are losing to retirement and burnout," he said.
'Demand for Services Outstripping Capacity to Provide It': DoH
The Department of Health (DoH) said the current contract at Cullybackey Health Centre would end in 6 months. A spokesperson said the DoH will now begin a process to secure alternative arrangements for these services.
A number of different options are available to ensure patients are not left without a GP service, the spokesperson explained. The preferred option is to secure a GP contractor – or grouping of GPs – to take over the practice through a formal recruitment process. In some circumstances, health and social care trusts can take over a GP contract as an interim solution.
"We want to reassure patients that the existing Cullybackey Health Centre will continue to retain the contract to deliver GP services for the next 6 months," the spokesperson said. Patients at the practice do not need to take any action and should continue to contact the practice as normal. The DoH will be contacting all practice patients to keep them informed as this process begins.
The department acknowledged "ongoing and significant pressures on GP practices, stemming from the fact that demand for their services is outstripping capacity to provide it".
The spokesperson said: "Notwithstanding budgetary pressures, the department is committed to building the GP workforce." Adding they have made "significant progress" in relation to the number of GPs they train each year.
"The number of GP training places in Northern Ireland has been increased by 70% from 2015 levels in recent years," the spokesperson said, adding that the review of places is ongoing and the department will consider recommendations from the review of training places in the future. The department has also recently streamlined the processes for GPs who qualified in a number of countries to take up roles in Northern Ireland, the spokesperson explained.