Shameful shortage | 

Patients struggling to get new doctor as country in midst of GP 'workforce crisis'

The Oireachtas Health Committee yesterday heard on average there was less than one GP for every 1,000 of the population

The extension of free GP care is under threat from shortage

Eilish O'Regan

The problem faced by thousands of patients trying to find a GP who will put them on their books looks set to worsen amid warnings of a shortage of doctors.

Val Moran, industrial relations director at the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), told the Oireachtas Health Committee yesterday how on average there was less than one GP for every 1,000 of the population.

He said the Government has promised to extend free GP care but there was little point in doing this if it piled even more pressure on doctors and if patients faced a two-week delay before seeing one.

The HSE's own figures suggested we need up to 1,660 more GPs by 2028 to enable us deal with growth in population and growing age of population in particular.

The shortage looks set to delay Government promises to extend free GP care to more children.

"One in five of existing GPs is expected to retire before the end of this decade," Mr Moran said.

"And many GPs are unable to take reasonable leave from their practices which is directly leading to increased levels of stress and burnout among doctors."

On average, GPs are working far in excess of the nominal 40 hours a week, he said.

Most GPs work significant additional hours after a day of patient consultations to manage checking and follow up on test results, organise referrals, make phone consultations and complete the administrative functions associated with the running of a GP practice.

Tadhg Crowley, a Kilkenny GP, warned that younger general practitioners would not put up with the "mad stuff that was done in the past" by older colleagues when it came to work-life balance.

He said he was a middle-aged doctor and his work-life balance was "atrocious".

"You can see the ill effects of what it created in people of my generation," Dr Crowley said, referring to the excessive workload of GPs.

"We cannot afford to lose more of our highly-trained graduates who are in such demand from other countries where they can deliver care with better resources, better structures and team supports."

The IMO and the Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) renewed its call for the urgent establishment of a Working Group on Future General Practice.

Dr Diarmuid Quinlan, medical director of the ICGP, said it is estimated that Ireland needed more than 2,000 GPs over the next decade to meet impending retirements.

Meanwhile, more than 700 older GPs are due to retire in the next 10 years.

He said Ireland was in the "midst of a GP workforce and workload crisis" and said the Covid-19 epidemic has exacerbated long-standing workforce and workload challenges.

Dr Quinlan pointed to compelling evidence from the UK showing how each additional GP per 10,000 of the population was associated with fewer hospital admissions for both acute and chronic illness.

He stressed the need for an expansion of the GP healthcare team, especially nurses. However this will require more clinical space as infrastructure costs involved in housing an expanded GP team staff are prohibitive, especially in urban areas.

Incentives to support expanded GP teams are needed, he said.

The meeting was told new doctors who leave medical school can have around €100,000 in debt, despite free university fees, which is a major barrier to setting up a practice.

Dr Madeleine Ní Dhálaigh of the IMO GP Committee suggested GPs could be financially helped to get a premises for their surgery with tax reliefs.

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