Rural doctor’s crisis bites

Wigtown surgery
Wigtown surgery

A packed meeting of concerned patients from the Wigtown GP practice heard from NHS representatives that the planned merger with the Merrick Practice in Newton Stewart is inevitable due to the “dire” shortage of doctors willing to work in rural practices.

The meeting, hosted by Wigtown Community Council, were told the level of concern over falling numbers of doctors interested in joining a rural practices was now a real national crisis.

The Wigtown practice has one doctor and one nurse practitioner retiring within weeks and attempts to recruit a replacement GP had been unsuccessful leading to the link with the practice in Newton Stewart to preserve the practice’s existence.

NHS Dumfries and Galloway medical director Angus Cameron and Wigtown practice GP Stephen Gurling both stressed that the move to link the two practices was taken to avoid a worst case scenario of closing the practice down or, alternatively, having it run by the NHS with locum doctors. He explained that the NHS had tried to entice GPs to Wigtown with adverts linked to the tourist board to promote the area’s scenic qualities, links to DGRI’s excellent reputation for foundation training for doctors, which is in the top ten in the UK, and even a ‘golden handshake’ financial incentive. All this had failed, leading Dr Cameron to comment that “things are pretty dire.”

The alternative were to have patients learning to manage their own illnesses; have more input from nurse/practitioners; physiotherapists and pharmacists, or the option they decided to go for - collaborating with other practices to form a group of four or five doctors with, ideally, a range of skills.

In Wigtown, the news that both Dr Dunn and nurse/practitioner Sister Parker were retiring led to the need for a swift decision to save the practice, hence, explained Dr Gurling, the lack of consultation with the community, which he apologised for. The GP added: “I really enjoy it (being a rural GP) but it’s really hard work and I can’t do it on my own. I was therefore miraculous that we have the tie-up with the Merrick practice. I realise there were problems with a lack of consultation but, as a practice, we had to move quickly to get something in place.”

When the meeting was opened to the floor, concerned patients raised queries about patient transport to the Health Centre in Minnigaff, morning only sugeries in Wigtown and safeguarding getting repeat prescriptions in Wigtown.

Regarding transport, Dr Cameron said that Jeff Ace, the chief executive of NHS Dumfries and Galloway, was in discussions with Swestans and the council regarding an idea to tweak public transport to fit in with peoples’ needs rather that adhere to a timetable. If these discussions are successful it could see pilot schemes of passenger friendly community transport tested in Mid Galloway, with the possibility of patients being taken to doctor’s appointments.

The NHS officials said they were aware that public transport was already under pressure from local authority budget cuts.

Patients were unhappy that the surgery in Wigtown will, from September, only be open in the mornings, meaning those who work days will have to travel to Newton Stewart to see a doctor.

Dr Gurling explained that the need to have a surgery open every morning, rather than two or two and half full days, was to ensure staff dealt daily prescriptions and home visits administration. He assured patients that the system for repeat prescriptions would continue as before.

It was pointed out that 500 patients registered with the Wigtown practice actually lived in the Newton Stewart / Minnigaff area so the amalgamation would be of benefit to them regarding travelling.

Mid Galloway Councillor Alistair Geddes pointed out that the GP crisis has been coming for a long time.

He warned the NHS representatives: “For this system to work you have to win hearts and minds and put in place a sustainable system of transport, and I don’t hold out much hope of that being in place in time for the amalgamation.”