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Community Healthcare Organisation (CHO) 8, covering counties Laois, Offaly, Longford, Westmeath, Louth and Meath, has the highest number of vacancies, with nine positions unfilled.
“At 1 September 2017, there were 23 GMS panels vacant nationally. All vacancies are currently covered by a locum GP or by a GP in a neighbouring practice. To put this in the context of the 2,500 (approx) GMS panels currently in existence nationally, 0 per cent are without medical cover,” a HSE spokesperson said.
It is generally more difficult to fill vacancies that arise in remote rural areas, particularly in the case of single-handed practices, the spokesperson acknowledged.
This is the case in Co Kerry, where three practices have struggled to find replacement GPs. It is understood that a vacant GMS position in Waterville currently being covered by a GP locum has been advertised for a third time.
Elsewhere, in Sneem, the local GP Dr Patrick Malone is due to retire next month, but despite initial fears the post would be left vacant, it is understood that a GP replacement has been found.
However, a GP service in Rathmore is currently available just three days a week following the retirement of a full-time GP in November 2014. Between November 2014 and September 2015, there was no GP service in Rathmore and a meeting is now due to take place between HSE officials and members of the local community council about what locals feel is an inadequate GP service.
In the next three years, 145 GMS GPs in total will reach retirement age, a spokesperson for the HSE told the Medical Independent (MI).
“It is reasonable to project that up to 200 GPs will enter the GMS scheme under open entry in the next three years,” the HSE spokesperson pointed out, however.
They also highlighted the €10 million package introduced under the Rural Practice Support Framework (RPSF), including increases in allowances and wider eligibility for supports for doctors living in rural areas, in May 2016.
“The number of GPs in receipt of rural practice support has almost doubled with the introduction of RPSF.”
The spokesperson also pointed out that the number of GP trainees has increased over the last seven years, from 119 in 2010 to 172 in 2017, though the ICGP was unable to fill all allocated 186 places this year.