‘Staffing crisis’ leads GPs to urge patients to self-treat minor illnesses

Dr Maurice Eakin.
Dr Maurice Eakin.

Under pressure GPs have urged patients in Lurgan and Craigavon to self-treat minor illnesses over Winter due to a ‘staffing crisis’.

As some patients stuggle to get appointments, the public has been asked to use common sense and avail of over-the-counter remedies at chemists, particularly during Winter.

One local GP said that while Lurgan isn’t the worst area when it comes to a shortage of GPs, surgeries are facing pressures all year round.

Dr Maurice Eakin of High St Surgery said: “We were lucky to get a new GP when we had a vacancy. There is a shortage of GPs but Lurgan appears to be more attractive as it is not far from Belfast.”

Dr Eakin said it would ease pressure on staff if patients would go to the chemists for items such as painkillers, cold remedies and athlete’s foot remedies.”

One patient at High St Surgery said: “I really do feel sorry for the staff who are clearly under a great deal of pressure.

“If you are lucky you can get an appointment within three weeks, a lot of times you get the feeling you will either be killed or cured by the time you get to see your GP.

“All of the doctors at High Street are lovely and I’m sure they are doing their best to meet the demand but it seems to me there are simply too few of them to deal with so many patients.”

Several GP surgeries in Lurgan have been so busy lately that several attempts to call were unsuccessful as the phones were constantly engaged.

The British Medical Association’s Northern Ireland General Practitioners Committee (NIGPC) warned the ‘staffing crisis’ in general practice has left remaining GPs each with average patient lists of over 2,000.

The NIGPC has written a open letter to the public warning them that due to the “unprecedented pressure in terms of increased workload and a severe shortage of doctors” and “abject failure of local politicians to address these issues has exacerbated an already critical situation”, they are encouraging patients to “deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home.”

Anyone eligible is also being asked to get the flu vaccine ahead of what is expected to be a severe influenza epidemic over the winter period.

The letter was sent to all newspapers across Northern Ireland and is supported by a poster campaign throughout the country’s GP surgeries urging patients to do what they can to treat minor winter ailments.

“Over the winter months GPs and their staff will do their best to maintain vital services for the most vulnerable patients, however it is only fair to warn you that some practices may have to cut their opening hours, stop routine services, deal with cases over the phone or send patients directly to hospital in order to manage workload,” writes NIGPC Chair, Dr Tom Black.

“To help manage workload we would encourage patients, where possible, to deal with minor illnesses such as sore throats, coughs and colds with treatment at home. Your local pharmacy should be your first point of call for these minor issues.

“This crisis in GP services has been caused by a lack of funding, a huge increase in workload and a failure to attract young doctors into general practices. The average GP is now responsible for the care of 2,000 patients. We cannot sustain the current level of work and therefore ask for patients’ cooperation in taking these simple steps to help manage that workload.”

Armagh GP, Dr Frances O’Hagan, said they had been “left with no choice but to be honest with their patients on what lies ahead”.

“The problems in general practice have not gone away, and without a functioning devolved government they are getting worse,” said Dr O’Hagan.

“No funding, no new GPs coming through and the largest average patient list size we’ve ever had; we therefore owe it to our patients to be honest about what potentially lies ahead this winter and ask for their support. GPs and staff will continue to do their best to maintain vital services for those in most need.”