Full return of face-to-face GP appointments in Northern Ireland highly unlikely

Dr Alan StoutDr Alan Stout
Dr Alan Stout
A leading doctor has said it is highly unlikely there will be a full return to face-to-face GP services for patients in Northern Ireland following the pandemic.

Dr Alan Stout BMA Northern Ireland GP Committee chair, told the Stormont health committee of the pressures facing the primary care sector.

He said GP services have been using a phone-first system to enable patients to maintain contact with surgeries.

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Dr Stout told the committee it was “astounding” that the pressures brought by Covid-19 had not led to GP surgeries closing in Northern Ireland.

He said: “The pressures that general practice has been experiencing for many years, and namely the ever-growing workload with a decreasing workforce and subject to limited funding, these issues ... have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

“The Covid restrictions have rapidly changed the way we operate practices for the safety of our patients and staff. We have had to be innovative, creative and flexible to ensure that we are able to continue to deliver care to our patients.

“It is both reassuring and astounding that no practice has had to close ... and the number of patients we have seen face to face and virtually continue to rise and have risen above pre-pandemic levels.

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“We have had great feedback from many that being able to see their GP virtually has actually made us more accessible, although we do recognise that others do prefer or need to be seen in the room and where this is necessary this continues to be the case.”

Dr Stout added: “However, the way general practice has been delivered in recent years has become unsustainable for us to meet the increased workload with a decreased workforce.

“GPs and their staff ... are totally exhausted but continue to be totally committed to serving our patients. That is why it is particularly difficult to listen to daily criticism.

“We have never worked so hard and yet still find ourselves in a position of needing to defend ourselves and reiterate the message that GP practices are not and never have been closed.

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“Let me be clear, we are in a worse position now than we were pre-pandemic and it will continue to be very challenging. Demand is higher than it has ever been, the workforce is decreasing and the funding is so badly needed.”

The GP said: “It has highly unlikely that we will have the desire or the capacity to return to a 100% face-to-face model. The phone-first model and the use of technology will allow surgeries to remain sustainable and accessible and provides a better service than pre-Covid.”