Portadown doctor warns GP services 'at risk of collapse'
A Portadown doctor has claimed GP services could "collapse" across Northern Ireland because of the strain and pressures facing general practice.
Dr Stuart MacDonald works in Portadown Health Centre, home to seven surgeries including Bannview Medical Practice.
Bannview is potentially at risk of closure after its last remaining doctor resigned.
Dr MacDonald, from a separate surgery in the same building, said: "Every GP that I speak to is feeling the strain."
The other six surgeries in the town have told the health authorities that they cannot absorb the 5,000 patients from the Bannview practice.
On Wednesday, the Health and Social Care Board (HSCB) denied claims that Bannview was set to close within weeks, and said: "No decisions have been made to close the practice."
The HSCB said it was "currently in discussions with a potential contractor to take over" the practice, but patients have complained to BBC News NI about the current level of service being provided by Bannview in the absence of regular family doctors.
Dr MacDonald told the BBC's Good Morning Ulster programme: "Any time we've had meetings in Portadown to discuss this, I've been very, very struck at the depth of feeling among all the GPs in all the practices."
He said doctors were having difficulty trying to provide a "safe, sustainable service" because of a shortage of GPs to cater for demand.
"Portadown is the first medium-sized town where this situation has become so acute, but I am sure that there are other towns right across Northern Ireland where [surgeries] may be one illness or one retirement away from a very, very similar situation."
Dr MacDonald added: "Bannview must survive. If Bannview falls, then its possible Portadown [GP services] as a whole could fall over and create a domino effect, not just in Portadown but in the underlying areas.
"If that happens in Portadown, it could happen in any town."
'No pre-booked appointments'
Clare McConville-Walker, now 34, has been a patient of Bannview Medical Practice since birth.
The mother of three told BBC News NI that her family has not been able to pre-book an appointment with their own GP "for months" due to the shortage of doctors in the surgery.
Ms McConville-Walker said her grandfather, who is also a Bannview patient, is being treated for cancer and dealing with a "different locum every day" is causing difficulties.
She said she believed that many patients who need to see their GP about important, but non-emergency health issues, will be "put off" because of the current situation.
Wednesday's HSCB statement said: "The board and practice apologise to all patients for the current inconvenience and will continue to work diligently together over the coming days to endeavour to ensure normal cover and the full provision of general medical services resumes as soon as possible."
The last GP to quit at Bannview, Dr Shauna Heanen, wrote an emotive resignation letter saying she "couldn't cope" with 12 to 14-hour working days with no breaks.
Dr MacDonald told the BBC that the health authorities must bear in mind that GPs are "human beings".
"These are people with family lives, they are people with home lives, and many of us are struggling to get the balance right. I'm aware of situations where GPs have given up their job just to be able to have some sort of functioning normal home life again."
Last month, it was reported that hundreds of GPs in Northern Ireland have signed undated resignation letters to the NHS, meaning they could begin charging patients directly for appointments this year.
The British Medical Association's Tom Black said at the time GPs have a "huge workload" and if something was not done about it there would be "no GP services".
Many medical professional have argued that Northern Ireland is not producing enough doctors to cater for its aging population.
Last year, Health Minister Michelle O'Neill announced plans to increase the number of GP training places to 111.
It means there are 12 additional places this year and 14 extra next year.