Northern Ireland

Increase in number of GPs in Northern Ireland

Doctor taking blood pressure
Image caption Northern Ireland is bucking the UK trend of falling GP numbers

The number of GPs per head of population in NI is rising despite falling elsewhere in the UK, the BBC can reveal.

The Nuffield Trust analysis looked at GPs working in the NHS, both full and part-time, per 100,000 people.

While there are more doctors, fewer of them are choosing to work full time, said the Royal College of GPs.

Recognising issues linked to an ageing population, the Department of Health said it needed to train more GPs.

Currently, there are 67 per 100,000 people in Northern Ireland, meaning there are almost six more doctors per 100,000 people than there were a decade ago - in England they are down by six.

County Fermanagh, Omagh and Mid Ulster have the lowest number of doctors per head of population, with a number of practices being forced to merge in order to stay open.

GPs per 100,000 population

CouncilGPs
Antrim and Newtownabbey59.8
Ards and North Down71.6
Armagh, Banbridge & Craigavon67
Belfast72.2
Causeway Coast and Glens69.3
Derry City and Strabane65.3
Fermanagh and Omagh58.3
Lisburn and Castlereagh70.6
Mid and East Antrim72.1
Mid Ulster57.5
Newry, Mourne and Down63.8
Northern Ireland67
Source: Nuffield Trust

Northern Ireland's Royal College of GPs said it required more doctors to work full time in general practice - particularly in rural areas - but acknowledged that years of lobbying for additional funding had paid off.

Image caption Grainne Doran says more GPs are choosing not to work full time

"We have had an increase in the total number of GPs but unfortunately they are not all choosing to work full time in GP practices," said the college's chairwoman, Dr Grainne Doran.

"Instead, they are expanding their portfolios in other areas - which is great but doesn't mean we have enough GPs working in surgeries to meet the needs of a growing population.

"For instance, they are working in emergency departments perhaps one night a week, and they are also involved in hospice care, even involved in training."

The nature of general practice is changing. Gone are the days when a GP worked full time from one practice.

Dr Mark Cromie, who has been qualified for almost three years, works in both a rural practice in Lisnaskea, Enniskillen, and in the local hospital, as well as being involved in teaching.

"GPs want to work differently now," he said. "We don't want to work on our own and isolated but instead as part of a wider team where we can bounce ideas off one another.

"We are involved in a team of physiotherapists, social workers, dermatologists, often under the one roof and that provides better care for patients."

Image caption Dr Mark Cromie enjoys the variety of work available to a rural GP

Northern Ireland is struggling to get more people like Dr Cromie. Despite lobbying for additional GP training places, and securing 111, only 86 were filled this year.

The Royal College of GPs admits it must now adopt a more positive tone about the profession.

GPs per 100,000 population

5-yearly data before 1995
Source: Nuffield Trust

It has called on the Department of Health to ensure the HSC (Health and Social Care) workforce strategy analyses workforce needs and trends in general practice to ensure Northern Ireland has enough GPs.

The department said Northern Ireland had the UK's most ambitious approach to delivering multi-disciplinary working in primary care.

"Every practice now has access to a practice-based pharmacist - the largest scheme of its kind in the UK, relative to population," said a spokesperson.

Elsewhere, the NHS is seeing the first sustained fall in GP numbers per head of population for nearly 50 years.

In England, the number of GPs per 100,000 people fell from 63.9 in 2014 to 58 last year.

The last time numbers fell like this was in the late 1960s.

From 1970 to 2010, numbers were rising as the population aged.

But after 2010, the increases started tailing off, before falling in each of the last four years.

The fall in GPs means the average doctor now has 125 more patients to look after than they did in 2014.

The Nuffield Trust, an independent think tank, believes another 3,500 GPs would be needed to get the NHS back to where it was in 2014.

There are just over 42,000 working currently, down by nearly 1,500 in four years.

Panorama's GPs, Why Can't I Get An Appointment, is on BBC One at 19:30 BST on 8 May

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