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NI patients suing GPs over hospital waiting time targets

NI patients suing GPs over hospital waiting time targets

Northern Ireland GPs are being hit with bills of thousands of pounds as they are sued by patients coming to harm on hospital waiting lists.

Belfast Telegraph

Family doctors are being taken to court by their patients as a result of spiralling hospital waiting lists — even though GPs are not responsible for the crisis.

It comes as official figures show 14% of the population — around one in seven — had been waiting longer than a year for an outpatient or inpatient appointment at the end of March.

The growing risk to patient safety, as the health service struggles to cope with demand, and the potential for primary care doctors to be held accountable have been blamed as reasons for the rising number of GPs who are handing back their contracts.

Sixteen GP surgeries in Northern Ireland have handed back contracts in recent months, bringing the key NHS service closer to collapse.

The British Medical Association (BMA) has warned a further 30 practices are “in crisis”.

The BMA has been calling for changes to the indemnity system here in a bid to reduce the number of surgeries facing closure.

Dr Alan Stout, chair of the BMA’s GP committee in Northern Ireland, explained: “All of those patients who are on a hospital waiting list have to be cared for until they get their appointment. While they’re waiting to be seen, it’s the GP that’s carrying the risk.

“It’s the same for a patient who goes to an emergency department and they aren’t admitted, and for those who are discharged from hospital and they’re becoming frailer and frailer — but they’re being discharged earlier and earlier.

“They’re our responsibility and the risk is getting greater and greater and GPs are paying for it.

“GPs are being sued by their patients. They’re saying the GPs didn’t push hard enough for the hospital appointment. It’s really stressful for the GP. They have to spend a lot of time on all the paperwork, and it’s expensive too.”

Family doctors have already warned that they’re struggling to meet the cost of running a practice, in light of the cost-of-living crisis affecting all businesses.

In one case last year, a GP surgery saw its annual energy bill rise from £30,000 to £130,000.

Some GP surgeries have had to scale back opening hours in a bid to remain financially viable.

The indemnity system for GPs in NI is different from that in place in England and Wales.

GPs in NI are not covered by a state-backed scheme and pay thousands of pounds a year to be covered for clinical negligence.

The annual indemnity amount increases when a GP has had to make a claim having been sued by a patient.

However, in England and Wales, the system was changed in 2019 so that state-backed schemes automatically cover all GPs if they are providing NHS services, and family doctors pay a nominal fee for cover.

A Department of Health spokesperson said, in the state-backed scheme, “the cost of claims’ administration and of successful clinical negligence claims are met from within the health budget”.

They continued: “We are continuing to take forward work to look at the model of GP indemnity provision in Northern Ireland.

“A number of possible options, including the current model and a number of state-backed model options, have been identified.

“We recognise that there is expectation amongst GP representative organisations in Northern Ireland and political representatives that the review of the indemnity model will be progressed at pace.

“We have been clear, however, that the pace of this work is subject to completion of the business case process and that, as such, there are a series of steps that will need to be completed.

“This process is necessarily very detailed, given the potential costs and risks associated with GP indemnity options.

“It is likely that any final decision on the implementation of a new model for GP indemnity in Northern Ireland will require ministerial agreement.”

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