Northern Ireland

Game of Thrones location seeking GP - via Twitter

HSC GP ad Image copyright Twitter

The drama Doc Martin represented an idyllic notion of a coastal GP practice that was embraced by viewers throughout the world.

But the fictional doctor at the heart of the story is a reluctant rural dweller who is scathing about the simple ways of the Cornish villagers and their obscure medical conditions.

Far fetched? Maybe not in Northern Ireland, where the Health and Social Care Board (HSC) is struggling to recruit GPs to country practices.

In what might be seen as an unusual move for a healthcare organisation, the HSC used the HBO drama series Game of Thrones as a marketing tool for a post in Glenarm, County Antrim this week.

And they tweeted out this advert for anyone interested in the job.

According to the BMA, the shortage of GPs in Northern Ireland is now critical. It says the problem is especially acute in rural areas, where the workforce is too lean.

Image copyright © P Flannagan/CC Geograph
Image caption A medical practice in the Portadown Health and Care Centre was closed on Thursday due to a lack of GPs

Ten years ago, County Fermanagh had 18 practices, but the BMA says that figure is now expected to drop to five.

Dr Tom Black of the BMA says the dwindling workforce in rural areas makes it even more difficult to attract young doctors to work there.

Another problem, he says, is that Queen's University medical students only do 5% of their training in GP practices - less than any other university in the UK.

Image copyright © Kenneth Allen/CC Geograph
Image caption Like the fictional village in the BBC Doc Martin drama, County Fermanagh is very idyllic, but it has a chronic shortage of GPs

In February 2015, the BMA called on the Department of Health to train an additional 46 GPs per year in order to meet gaps in the workforce.

The number of training places was increased by 20.

It is hoped proposals for a new graduate entry medical school in Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry could go some way towards resolving this issue.

"This new school would have more GP focused training, with a greater shift in resources away from hospitals and into the community," said Dr Black.

Image caption Proposals for a graduate entry medical school in Ulster University's Magee campus in Londonderry could go some way towards resolving this issue

Since 2014, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in general practice by the Department of Health, but the BMA says it is not enough.

With a growing and ageing population, demand has been growing on general practice, encouraging many doctors to take early retirement.

In south Armagh, the local health trust stepped in with emergency cover in one practice during the summer to ensure it stayed open until a permanent replacement could be found. The BBC understands that is still the case.

Most practices are reporting waiting lists of up to several weeks, with a common complaint from the public being that it is rare to see a GP of your choice without having to wait up to a fortnight.

But with the average doctor now seeing 43 patients per day, Dr Black says that many practices are now "at breaking point" due to the pressure GPs are under. He also suggested that the current crisis has been looming for years, so it was not un-forseen by department officials.

"The Department of Health has ignored GP practice for years and now it's reaping what it sowed," he said.