The number of GP practices in Northern Ireland has fallen by 8% since 2014, while the average number of registered patients per practice has sharply increased – a trend the RCGPNI has said is ‘deeply alarming’.
A series of closures and mergers has seen the number of practices in Northern Ireland fall from 350 in 2014 to 323, as of March, figures from the Health and Social Care’s Business Services Organisation (BSO) show. One LCG (health trust) area saw the number of practices fall by 16%.
‘The loss of more GP surgeries is terrible news for both staff and patients, said RCGPNI chair Dr Laurence Dorman.
‘When a practice closes for whatever reason it is incredibly difficult for everyone involved – especially patients. Generations of institutional knowledge about patients and their families can be lost and there also follows a ripple effect, where neighbouring practices become at risk of destabilisation.’
The average number of patients registered per practice grew from 5,500 to 6,200 in that same period.
There were just over two million patients registered with a GP practice in Northern Ireland at the end of March.
GP practice staff who were already ‘under tremendous strain’ prior to the Covid-19 outbreak, ‘are working to their absolute limits to provide safe, high-quality care’, Dr Dorman added.
‘We have been telling government and health leaders for a long time that GPs are under immense pressure,’ he said.
He called for ‘urgently needed investment’ in workforce, technology and premises and strategies to deal with unsustainable workload.
The RCGPNI highlighted the issue of practice closures in a 2019 report looking at ways to support and sustain general practice, and urged the Department of Health to take action.
As part of its recommendations, it called for sustainable funding, action to address shortfalls in the workforce and more manageable workload.
A spate of practice closures also hit England in recent years, with 150 shutting since 2018, and several closures coming in a single week in February.