GPs under pressure as doctor warns of knock-on impact of ambulance queues

A leading doctor has described how long waits by ambulance crews outside Northern Ireland hospitals is having a knock-on effect across the health service.

Ambulances queued up outside Antrim Area Hospital in December 2020, 
Ambulances queued up outside Antrim Area Hospital in December 2020, PICTURE BY STEPHEN DAVISON

Dr Laurence Dorman, chairman of the Royal College of GPs in Northern Ireland, said that if ambulances are “queued up” outside overcrowded emergency departments they can be out of action for hours at a time — meaning emergencies elsewhere are forced to wait.

This comes after a woman died following a long wait in an ambulance outside the under-pressure emergency department at the Ulster Hospital in Dundonald earlier this week.

The Southern Trust has said it is carrying out a review following the incident.

Dr Dorman said GPs are also “getting it very tough at the moment” due to the increased pressure on the health service.

“You don’t see our pressures,” he said. “You can take a TV crew or a photographer to an Emergency Department and film long queues or overcrowding. People can easily see it. Ours is virtual because you can’t see the lists of telephone conversations that we are dealing with every day. GPs are doing consultations for 40 and 50 people a day and, yet, the impression is that we’re closed when we’re very much not.

“It’s really, really difficult.”

Speaking about the incident at the Ulster Hospital, he said: “In terms of what happened at the Ulster Hospital, that is a total tragedy. Unfortunately, frequently the only way we have had to escalate people’s care has been through casualty departments, the front door of the hospital.

“We are working hard to make other arrangements. We need to work collaboratively with our hospital colleagues to make sure that doesn’t happen. I’m a rural GP, and if an ambulance is queued up at an Emergency Department because they can’t offload their patient to that Emergency Department, they can’t come to a rural patient for two or three hours.”

On the reasons for the increased pressures, Dr Dorman said: “First of all is the sheer volume of people presenting to us. There are people who have held back throughout the pandemic who are now coming back to address their problems.
“A massive thing is people on waiting lists. If someone is waiting for a long time for a specialist opinion or operation, we are the only person that they’ve got left.

“If they need an operation and their condition has got worse, they come back to us. There’s massive pressure on our services, on top of covid which is still very much there and is still very much affecting our workforce.”