Rural Ireland losing another lifeline as up to 50pc of GPs to retire
Rural communities will soon be left without family doctors as hundreds are set to retire, new figures have identified.
A staggering 50pc of general practitioners in Leitrim are due to retire within seven years.
Up to 40pc of GPs are approaching retirement age in Kilkenny and Longford, while at least 30pc are facing retirement in Mayo, Galway, Kildare, Limerick, Meath, Monaghan, Roscommon and Westmeath.
Cavan, Clare, Dublin, Kerry, Offaly, Tipperary, Cork and Wexford stand to lose at least 25pc. The figures, obtained by the Irish Independent, show 666 GPs are currently over the age of 60, including 244 over 65. Based on the data, GPs aged 60 years and over now account for 27pc of the national GP workforce.
The average age of GP retirement is 67 years.
Dr Padraig McGarry, chairman of the Irish Medical Organisation GP Committee, said there is a "very real threat" some GPs will not be replaced.
"The loss of general practice in rural areas is similar to the loss of many services in rural Ireland. We have an increasingly older population of GPs facing retirement and young GPs are not prepared to come in under present circumstances of excessive hours and poor supports.
"There is a very real threat that GPs in the worst affected counties will not be replaced. We might have areas in rural Ireland, particularly west of the Shannon, where they will not be able to attract GPs," he said.
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A decade ago positions in rural practice often attracted up to 30 applications. Today substantial practices struggle to get just one applicant. In some cases there is no interest at all.
Dr McGarry said elderly patients in counties such as Clare were forced to travel long distances to link up with a doctor after the retirement of a local GP.
"It's not good for patients. The essence of general practice is continuity of care and knowing your own doctor. If you have a retired GP being replaced by a locum who rotates every four to six months, you are going to lose that personal, valuable knowledge," he said.
Funding cuts of up to 38pc made under Financial Emergency Legislation (Fempi) in 2009 have severely affected general practice.
"Cuts stymied a GP's ability to invest in their practice and in many cases to simply meet outgoing bills. The only reason there has not been a complete collapse in rural areas in particular is existing GPs who have already invested in their practices and are committed to a particular area are continuing to provide services.
"These GPs are approaching retirement and the big fear is there will be no younger GPs to replace them. This year, for the first year, the GP training scheme was under-subscribed with more places than doctors to fill them," Dr McGarry said.
Burnout is also becoming a worrying issue among older rural GPs who can't take a break.
Although public servants have a roadmap for the return of cuts made under Fempi, GPs as independent contractors have not been included.
"An immediate return of some of the cuts made under Fempi is urgently required with a roadmap for full restoration to allow hard-pressed GPs to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Without this, general practice in Ireland will fail. We will not have doctors for local areas and patients will be forced to travel further," he said, adding the problem may soon spread to more urban centres.