One of Northern Ireland’s leading GPs has described the pressures facing family doctors today as “soul destroying”.
New research has suggested a quarter of GPs won’t be working in Northern Ireland in five years.
West Belfast GP Dr George O’Neill, who has been in practice for four decades, was speaking after the release of a major survey of sentiment among medics in Northern Ireland.
The research by the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland (RCGPNI), found that 26% of family doctors asked reported that they were unlikely to be working in general practice in five years’ time.
Retirement and stress were among the most common reasons given by the medical professionals.
Dr O’Neill said that GP workload has increased massively.
“For example, when I started in medicine, all the chronic illnesses were looked after by hospital out-patient departments.
“But all that work has been moved out to general practice,” Dr O’Neill said.
“There’s more administration, more face-to-face consultations.
He said that over a recent 10-year period, there had been a 72% increase in the number of hospital consultants. However GP numbers had increased by just 8%.
The population has also increased, as has the proportion of elderly people – many with multiple medical conditions to be managed.
Asked what he would say to a young person considering a career as a GP today, Dr O’Neill warned: “Have a portfolio career. Being a GP is a very worthwhile job, but full-time, it’s soul destroying.”
The RCGPNI called for better support for doctors’ welfare in the wake of the findings.
A third of those surveyed felt so stressed at least once a week that they could not cope, this year’s results showed.
The report said: “The rate at which GPs are leaving the profession and the sustainability of general practice services continue to cause concern.”
It added: “It is therefore vitally important that steps are taken to ensure that, where possible, GPs are retained within the service and the process by which GPs can return to practice is made as accessible as possible.”
Retention and induction and refresher schemes exist to address these issues.
The report said: “These are not enough to meet the current challenges and we would like to see further investment in this area to increase the effectiveness of these programmes.”
The 2019 RCGPNI survey suggested that the average number of registered patients per practice has increased by 11% since 2014.
The report called for a review of occupational health provision, with emphasis on mental health services for GPs, including how such schemes can be actively promoted.
Financial stability was also of major concern.
This year, 42% of GPs felt that it was not very or not at all sustainable to run a general practice in Northern Ireland.
Of those GPs, 79% said professional indemnity costs were the reason behind this unsustainability.
The cost of securing medical indemnity continues to rise in Northern Ireland and presents a significant financial burden.
RCGPNI chair Dr Grainne Doran said: “The challenges we face must be addressed.
“General practice, dealing with the majority of NHS patient contacts, must be supported and resourced to help our patients to find the right care, at the right time.
“It must be a priority for society and for decision-makers to ensure that our health systems are fit for purpose and sustainable.”