Millions in public funding has been set aside to support GP services, Health Minister Robin Swann has announced.
Up to £1.7 million is to be spent improving phone infrastructure and online services. Another £3.8 million has been allocated for what the Department described as “additional patient care through the winter”.
Announcing the funding, Mr Swann pointed how out the GP workforce has decreased by at least 8% since 2014, even as patient numbers increased.
He said work is underway to roll out “multi-disciplinary teams”, and to reform out-of-hours GP services.
The announcement has been welcomed by the British Medical Association in Northern Ireland (BMANI).
Mr Swann said: “I recognise how important it is that people can access GP services when they need to do so. I must emphasise that GP practices have been open throughout the pandemic and will continue to use both face to face appointments and alternative consultation options for patients as appropriate.
“Services across Health and Social Care are under increasing pressure and we know that this will be a challenging winter. Feedback from GPs indicates that many patients are presenting with more complex needs, particularly those who have a chronic disease, making it more difficult for them to see all the people they would wish to.
“Work is underway on a number of fronts to help improve access to primary care services for patients. Further urgent work is progressing with GPs and the Health and Social Care Board to explore how telephony can be better used to support services. Consideration is also being given to ways to better deal with routine requests, such as repeat prescriptions to release capacity.”
He continued: “This work is part of a wider programme to help improve patient access to services, which includes the wider rollout of primary care Multi-Disciplinary Teams, and work to reform the Out of Hours service.
“At the same time, work is underway on a review of GP trainee places, to make sure we have enough GPs to meet our primary care needs into the future.”
The Minister added: “Even prior to the Covid-19 pandemic, primary care services were coming under increasing pressure. Figures in 2019 indicated patient contacts were almost 15m per year, up from an estimated 12.7m in 2014. At the same time, GP workforce, as measured in Whole Time Equivalents, decreased by 8%.”
Dr Alan Stout, of BMA NI, said: “This funding will help us address some immediate issues around telephony and the issues patients face in contacting their surgery.
“Combined with the expanded roll-out of multi-disciplinary teams and improvements to out of hours we are confident that patients will see improvements.”