Hundreds of GPs in Northern Ireland have signed undated resignation letters to the NHS, meaning they could begin charging patients directly for appointments in 2017.
A shortage of funding and strains on the workforce have already resulted in the closure of many rural surgeries.
The British Medical Association’s Tom Black said GPs have a “huge workload”, and suggested that if GPs did not do something there would be “no GP services”.
“There are now fewer GPs per head of the population than there were in the 1950s. There are already rural areas where practices are closing because no one will apply for the jobs. Nobody will apply for the jobs because the workload is too huge and there is no workforce, what workforce we have will not go to rural areas. This is not about the money – there are just not enough of them (GPs). This is not something that’s happening in Belfast at the moment or in Derry because that is where the limited workforce are going,” Black commented.
The BMA representative indicated that the areas that would suffer the most were the south, the west and the south-west of Northern Ireland.
According to the BMA, the shortage of GPs in Northern Ireland is now critical.
Since 2014, hundreds of millions of pounds have been invested in general practice by the Department of Health, but the BMA says this is not enough.
With a growing and ageing population, demand has been growing on general practice, encouraging many doctors to take early retirement.
But Mr Black said this was not what GPs wanted, adding that charging patients would be “a nightmare”.
Northern Ireland NHS Statistics
There are about 350 GP Practices in Northern Ireland, serving a population of 1.8 million people.
In 2016 Michelle O’Neill produced a plan to install a named district nurse, health visitor and social worker in every practice.
54 pharmacists are to start in practices in December 2016 with one in every practice by 2021.
The NHS waiting list target in Northern Ireland is 52 weeks, not 18 as in England.
10% of healthcare provided in the province is paid for privately.
Per head of population, Northern Ireland spends the most on health services among British nations (£2,106 per head in 2010/11) and England spends the least (£1,900 per head).