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Practices are losing multiple frontline staff members ‘every week’ in Northern Ireland

by Beth Gault
24 November 2021

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GP practices in Northern Ireland are regularly losing staff members due to the pressures and abuse faced by the sector, the RCGP chair in Northern Ireland, Dr Laurence Dorman, has said.

Speaking to the Health Committee in Northern Ireland yesterday (23 November), Dr Dorman said he and Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA Northern Ireland GP Committee, were hearing of practices losing staff members ‘every week’ amid ‘unmanageable’ pressures on the sector.

‘Every week, Alan [Stout] and I hear from GPs and practice team members who have broken down and had to take necessary sick leave because of their stress from work,’ said Dr Dorman.

‘A local practice close to me lost four frontline staff members in one month alone, all citing abuse received at work, another practice I am aware of has experienced six out of seven reception staff handing in their notice, all after having enough of the constant barrage of abuse on the telephone.’

He added that abuse of staff and GPs was ‘indefensible’ and ‘makes a significant and detrimental impact to our workforce’.  

‘Criticism in the press and media sometimes implies we’re not working hard enough. This could not be further from the truth,’ Dr Dorman said.

It comes after the BMA GP committee in England held an ‘emergency’ meeting with the health secretary Sajid Javid in September on the abuse of general practice staff.

Question of access

During the meeting yesterday, the health committee heard from Sinn Féin MLA Órlaithí Flynn that one woman in Belfast rang her GP surgery 286 times before her call was answered, where she was then told to phone back the next day.

Referring to people struggling to access services, Dr Dorman said as a GP leader he ‘deeply regrets’ that. However, that ‘no one is slacking in our workforce’.

‘We simply cannot meet the demand for our services with our current workforce,’ said Dr Dorman.

He also called for targeted investment in technology, as: ‘Some practices are using outdated phone systems which simply aren’t equipped for the high volume of calls.’

Practice closures

Speaking about the coming months, Dr Dorman added that he was ‘genuinely fearful’ of what the winter period would bring and warned of the need for more support to prevent practice closures.

‘Our GP practices are dealing with a completely unmanageable level of demand,’ Dr Dorman said.

‘If it wasn’t for the tireless work, the long hours and the sheer dedication of our colleagues I’m quite certain that some GP practices would have folded. It is vital we do not lose these practices; they are unique teams and an essential part of our healthcare system.’

He called for more GPs to be recruited and retained, and for the expansion of the rollout of multidisciplinary teams across the country to help with workload.

Dr Stout from the BMA added that the sector was struggling with ‘staff, capacity and GPs’, but despite this pressure he said that general practice had ‘stayed open’ and that ‘amazingly’ no practices had closed in the pandemic period.

‘That is credit to all of our GPs, all of our practice teams, but also very importantly our colleagues who we’ve worked very closely with in both the board and department who have been supportive in all ways to try and free up practices and enable them to stay open.’

Practice managers have previously urged the health secretary to publicly condemn the ‘indefensible’ abuse directed at general practice staff in a letter from the Institute of General Practice Management (IGPM).

In England, NHSE announced earlier this year that it would give GPs access to a £5m security fund as part of a new campaign to tackle patient abuse.