'Worrying' lack of GPs for 10,000 patients
More than 10,000 medical card holders across the country do not have access to a permanent GP, the Irish Independent has learned.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) is struggling to find doctors willing to take over the lists of medical card patients - including under sixes - with 13 vacant general medical service (GMS) panels nationwide.
Figures released to the Irish Independent showed 13 GP lists did not have a permanent GP at the beginning of February.
That meant each time a patient visited their local doctor they were seen by a locum or by another practice.
Six vacant panels in rural areas affected 4,713 patients, while seven vacancies in urban areas impacted on 5,321 patients.
The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), which represents doctors, warned the situation is putting the health of people at risk.
Dr Padraig McGarry, of the IMO GP Committee, described delays in filling of GP posts in rural and deprived areas as a "worrying trend", with hundreds set to retire in the coming years.
"There have been insufficient supports for rural and urban deprived areas and this is reflected in the difficulty in attracting doctors to work in these areas," Dr McGarry said.
"Following years of cutbacks to essential GP services, a new GP contract is needed that provides sufficient resources to allow general practice to be viable so that we can begin to encourage our younger GPs to stay in Ireland and attract back those who have already left.
"The lack of a GP in a particular area has a noticeable effect on the health outcomes and access to the health service for the population of that particular area."
Ten of the panels were vacant for more than six months, while four were left without a full-time GP for more than a year.
The Aran Islands of Inis Oirr and Inis Meain had 253 patients waiting eight years for a permanent medic.
HSE documents also reveal hundreds of patients have been left in limbo in urban area, with vacant panels in Cavan (1,092), Mosney (610), Drogheda (388) and Carrickmacross (511).
In Dublin, 1,399 patients in Blanchardstown had no permanent GP, as well as Swords (826) and Skerries (495).
A joint list covering Ballymore, Co Westmeath, and Ballymahon, Co Longford, has 1,760 patients - the largest number of patients affected in rural areas - followed by 1,394 in Coolgreaney and Clonroche, Co Wexford; 780 in Borris-in-Ossory, Co Laois; and 526 in Bansha, Co Tipperary.
Despite some panels being advertised for more than eight years, the HSE insists enough is being done to recruit doctors.
"Efforts continue to fill vacancies as soon as possible," said a HSE spokeswoman. "Each of these lists has either a locum GP or continue to have access to GP and primary care services."