A senior Southern Trust representative says temporarily closing three of the five out-of-hours GP bases in the area, had been done to protect the service.
The five Urgent Care Out-of-Hours bases are located in Craigavon Area Hospital, Daisy Hill Hospital, Tower Hill in Armagh, South Tyrone Hospital and Kilkeel Primary Care Centre.
From July 2021, the Southern Trust decided to temporarily close their Urgent Care Out-of-Hours bases in Tower Hill Armagh, South Tyrone Hospital and Kilkeel Primary Care Centre, meaning that GPs can now only be seen out of hours at Daisy Hill and Craigavon Area Hospital.
Defending the decision to temporarily close the three out-of-hours sites, Brian Beattie, who is the director of Adult Community Services at the Southern HSC Trust, told Mid Ulster councillors: “I was [recently] asked a very direct question: when are we returning Urgent Care – which is what we’re referring to as our GP out-of-hours – back into the South Tyrone base?
“We have it moved on a temporary basis, we know that was not a very popular decision, but we needed to protect the totality of the GP out-of-hours service which is made up of three key elements.
“It’s made up of the initial call, the service that supports the initial call where we triage and also provide advice, and by far we resolve the majority of our calls [at that stage].
“That was under threat as we tried to cover five bases across, with the level of uncovered shifts.
“We couldn’t get GPs to agree to work for us in the units as they were across five different units, so that telephone advice triage part which is very important was at risk.
“The base appointments is the part that happens – a very small percentage – in each of those five different areas, and one of the areas being in South Tyrone.
“The smallest part are actually the visits that happen, when GPs go out with the flashing lights out to see somebody.
“For the better good of all, the decision was taken to go from five to two.
“The numbers that we triaged in the year before and the years since we moved have stayed more or less the same.
“The number of people travelling for base appointments have doubled. Yes, there’s an inconvenience that they have to go to Craigavon, but twice as many people have been willing to do that, and we would suggest we’ve only been able to sustain that level of support because we did centralise.
“The last one was the home visits. Very little difference, it stayed the same, they still occur.
“So we will continue to review this with the Commissioners as they review urgent care in the widest form – the GP out-of-hours, the nighttime weekend part of it, but alongside the ‘phone first’ and the daytime urgent care services that we have – they’ll all be looked at together.”
Council Chairman, Councillor Dominic Molloy expressed concerns regarding the fact that service provision had been scaled down when Mid Ulster has a growing population: “We as councillors are members of the general public as well.
“I know staff do their very best within the constraints of what they they have to work with.
“You mentioned staffing and pay issues. It is a growing concern. We come here year in, year out, and the picture doesn’t get much better.
“When I came onto council in 2012 the Census figures for 2011 had just been released.
“The South Tyrone area population growth was predicted at 13 per cent at that stage.
“We are 10 years [on] and in education, health, roads, infrastructure, there doesn’t seem to be any cognisance of that growth that was predicted.
“It is depressing, I have to say, when you see some of the waiting lists. If out-of-hours services are withdrawn in the Dungannon area and the numbers travelling have doubled, that to me just doesn’t stack up.
“If they’ve doubled then revert the service to where it’s needed.”
The GP out-of-hours service operates on week days from 6pm to 8am, weekends and bank holidays, through the phone line 028 3839 9201.
A Trust spokesperson stated by way of additional background: “Only those with urgent medical symptoms that cannot wait until their GP surgery reopens should call the Urgent Care Out of Hours Service.
“Most people will have their enquiry resolved through telephone advice and or a prescription; some will require face-to-face assessment in one of the Urgent Care Out-of-Hours bases, located on the Craigavon or Daisy Hill Hospital sites; and a small number may require a home visit.
“Whilst we keep staffing for the Urgent Care Out-of-Hours Service under review, we are continuing to experience increasing demand and significant pressures across health and social care.
“The Trust is working with our service commissioners, the Strategic Planning and Performance Group (SPPG) regionally, to implement recommendations from the Department of Health’s Review of Urgent and Emergency Care Services, to address how best to provide unscheduled care services across Northern Ireland.
“The SPPG is part of the Department of Health and is accountable to the Minister for Health.
“It is responsible for planning, improving and overseeing the delivery of effective, high-quality, safe health and social care services within available resources.
“The work of SPPG includes No More Silos, which as part of the review of Urgent and Emergency Care, is working to implement the priorities identified to transform and improve services so patients can receive the right care, from the right person, as quickly as possible.”