Bannview, Portadown: 5,000 patients 'drifting in GP crisis'
More than 5,000 residents of Portadown, County Armagh, could be left without a GP service in less than two weeks.
Bannview Medical Practice is potentially at risk of closure after its last remaining doctor resigned.
Other surgeries in the town have said they cannot take on any new patients for safety reasons.
On Wednesday afternoon, the Health and Social Care Board sought to reassure patients, saying no official decision had been taken to close the practice.
It said it was in talks with a potential contractor and that "high quality and safe GP services will continue to be provided" at the clinic after 13 January, when the current GP contract ends.
Ulster Unionist MLA Doug Beattie earlier described the situation as a "full-blown crisis in which patients have been left drifting" and appealed to the health minister to "take control of the situation".
Following the board's assurances that the clinic would remain open, Mr Beattie welcomed what he described as a "last minute reprieve after a day of intense media interest in the plight of local patients".
Bannview once had four full-time GPs tending to its 5,200 patients.
But in October, only one remained - Dr Shauna Heanen - who has now also resigned.
In an emotive letter, which was presented to the Stormont Health Committee and published in the Portadown Times, Dr Heanen said she simply "couldn't cope" with 12 to 14 hour working days with no breaks.
"I often didn't eat until 9pm at night," she said.
"One of the GPs went on maternity leave in March 2016 and then a GP partner left in August 2016.
'I left in tears'
"This left me and one heavily pregnant GP trying to provide a service for 5,200 patients. We barely scraped by."
Dr Heanen advertised for staff and locum GPs, but to no avail. When the only other GP in the practice left, she had 5,200 patients to tend to herself - almost quadruple the Northern Ireland average.
Describing her last day at the clinic, after which she "left work in tears", she said: "I had done 40-50 phone calls to patients, two over-full surgeries, three house calls, 200 acute scripts, 150 blood results, hospital letters and a range of phone calls to various health professionals."
Dr Heanen's fears for her patients were also outlined in the letter: "I have palliative care patients who are dying, patients who have cancer, patients with severe mental health problems and children on 'at risk registers' who will not have a GP in less than three weeks."
Dr Arnie McDowell of the British Medical Association (BMA) explained that if the potential new contract does not come to fruition, the board will be faced with the prospect of taking over the practice itself - a situation which is "pretty much unprecedented in Northern Ireland" - or dispersing the patients between the other practices in the area, which he said is unlikely to work.
"If the patients are dispersed, one or more of the other practices could end up in the same situation because they're already operating to full capacity," he said.
"This is a very serious situation - one practice failing is bad enough, but if two or more do, it becomes a situation that will be impossible to manage.
"But this is the result of a much wider problem - there just aren't enough doctors to step in at the minute."
The six other GP practices in Portadown have written to the Health and Social Care Board expressing grave concern about the situation.
"Currently, all practices are operating with a list size in excess of 2,000 patients per full time GP, which is the upper limit of quality and safety as advised by the BMA," they said in the letter.
"Any additional workload will push all practices into an unsafe, unsustainable and potentially dangerous operating environment for GPs and patients."
Upper Bann MP David Simpson welcomed "assurances from the Health and Social Care Board that the Bannview Medical Practice will not be closing".
He added: "I appreciate that this is very worrying for patients who use Bannview, but also for our GP practices as a whole."
Sinn Féin MLA John O'Dowd described the reports of closure as "scare mongering" and said the board are "pro-actively trying to bring a permanent solution to the issue and have an interim plan in place".
Mr O'Dowd said he had been in contact with the health minister and discussions with a GP interested in taking over Bannview "are at an advanced stage".