National Association for Patient Participation

A crisis for rural GPs in Northern Ireland

04 March 2016

It’s 7am in early February and Dr Smyth takes the same journey to the surgery he has for 20 years.

As a single-handed GP with a small practice in Maguiresbridge, Fermanagh, Dr Smyth worries about the future sustainability of his practice and finding someone to take over the care of his patients after he retires. Today he will be welcoming a UTV crew to share his personal story.

Right now, Northern Ireland has the oldest GP population in the UK and has a significant gap in the GP workforce. RCGPNI have been lobbying the government to address this issue right across the province; however, there is an urgent need to target the recruitment crisis is rural areas in particular.

The sad news is, Dr Smyth is not alone in his difficulties with finding a successor for his practice. Northern Ireland just does not have enough family doctors who are willing to work in our smaller, more isolated surgeries. We are calling for the government, the Health Minister and the main organisations representing general practice to work together develop a package of solutions as a matter of urgency.

For the first in our Guest Blog series, Dr Adrienne Keown has been writing about what it means to her to be a rural GP:

Like Dr Smyth, I am also a rural family doctor in Northern Ireland. Although I work in a different County (Co Down), I am currently faced with the difficulty of a senior colleague retiring in the next 5 years. GPs are an important part of our local community and our patients love to receive a visit from us.

In the past, I have had the privilege of accompanying patients to the local funeral parlour while they sadly say their goodbyes to loved ones. I do what I can to support my patients when they need it most. People appreciate having someone to turn to in their times of need and I find it very touching when I am referred to as not just their doctor, but their friend.

Being a rural GP in a close-knit community, there are not necessarily fixed working hours. Different patients have different needs at different times and it was important to me to be able to support my patients when they need me. The reality is that sometimes, and all too often, some of our patients have no one else to turn to in their time of need or distress. The closure of rural practices would be a travesty.

Patients in rural areas are already disadvantaged by having to travel so far to local hospitals and can sometimes experience very long waits for ambulances when they need them, but this is about more than just the vital provision of health care for my local population. A local rural surgery is often the hub of the village and acts as a meeting point for many people. The nature of smaller practices enable staff to get to know everyone very well and there is often a real sense of friendship and support between staff and patients.  

I commend the work that the Royal College of GPs Northern Ireland is currently involved and think that Dr O’Kelly and Dr Fannin are doing a great job as leaders and in influencing the key decision makers here. I support the actions being taken to highlight the real issues in rural areas. If action is not taken to address the problems with recruiting new doctors, the situation is only going to get much worse.

Dr Adrienne Keown is a full–time GP Principal and GP trainer, based in Annalong, Co Down. She became a partner in her practice in April 2000 and is married with two children age 13 and 11. Dr Keown is also an Undergraduate Medical Student Champion.

The RCGP NI Manifesto is asking the NI Assembly to:

  • Grow the GP workforce by 400 by 2020
  • Give GPs sufficient time to focus on patient care
  • Empower innovation in general practice
  • Develop the whole general practice team
  • Improve general practice infrastructure
  • Provide ongoing, sustained investment in general practice

Click here to support your family doctor and general practice
in Northern Ireland by asking your MLA to make general practice
a priority through our easy tool.

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