Trust attacked on GP recruitment at Downe Hospital
The South Eastern Trust has defended its recruitment policies for doctors after coming under attack from DUP MLA Jim Wells.
Mr Wells has claimed the trust's attempts at recruiting doctors have been "half-hearted" and that GPs are angry at a proposal which could see them running Downe Hospital's emergency department at night.
The Trust said the current model for the department was "unsustainable".
It said it was engaging with GPs.
The trust launched a public consulation process in June which included proposals on the future of Downe Hospital's emergency department.
Its preferred option is that from 2200 BST to 0800 BST, the department would be run by a new urgent care co-operative to be formed between the department and its GP out-of-hours service.
It says its current system is heavily dependent on locum staff.
Mr Wells, who is chairman of the Stormont Health Committee, said the trust's director of hospital services, Seamus McGoran, had received a letter from "a significant number of GPs in the area" who were "extremely unhappy with this proposal".
He said that at its public meeting in June the trust had stressed that it had been making "strident attempts" to recruit doctors for the hospital's emergency department.
However, he said a freedom of information request by a local councillor then revealed only one major advertising attempt to recruit doctors had been made by the trust in the previous 11 months, and that was "only a few weeks before the public meeting".
He also said a freedom of information request to the trust had revealed the number of people treated at the emergency department at night at Downe Hopital could be doubled if ambulances were allowed to bring those patients to the hospital.
"I want to see evidence they have really tried not only in the UK, but also Europe and further afield to recruit these doctors, I believe that it is a self-fulfilling prophecy," he said.
"Obviously if you starve the emergency department of patients then inevitably you are going to come to the conclusion that there are not enough people there to justify recruiting new doctors.
"We believe what needs to be done is, the whole process needs to be stopped in its tracks, the consulation withdrawn and a completely new process started so the community can have confidence the trust have gone about this in the right way."
Mr McGoran said on Thursday no final decision had been made regarding the options in the public consulation process.
But he said its ability to sustain the current staffing model was "just not there any more" and it was "very clear that changes have to be made".
He said there was "a shortage of middle grade doctors, in fact Accident and Emergency doctors" not just in Downe Hospital but across the UK.
He rejected Mr Wells assertion that local GPs were unhappy and said the trust had been engaging with GPs "not just in the wider community, but those general practitioners who work in the out of hours service for some time".
Mr McGoran said it had been successful in recruiting consultants but that attracting middle grade, more junior doctors was a problem.
"In respect of trying to recruit junior doctors, we are in touch with recruitment agencies on a weekly basis, sometimes two and three times a week," he added.
"There's maybe some confusion out there about what recruitment is all about.
"Recruitment is not just about advertising, you go to advertising when there is a market there and you know trained and able doctors are there who are able to respond to that advertisement and our experience in recent years has been that market is not there.
"There are almost 30 vacant posts in emergency departments across Northern Ireland and we are talking about a UK problem."