Visa delays place major strain on South Doc Tralee

Sinead Kelleher

Out-of-hours GP service SouthDoc was almost forced to shut down emergency services at its Tralee centre over the Bank Holiday weekend due to doctor shortages according to SouthDoc's medical director, Dr Gary Stack.

The August Bank Holiday weekend almost saw the Tralee centre, which covers the entire North Kerry region, without emergency cover. 

"Until 4pm last Friday we had no cover in Tralee. At the last minute we got cover but we are now spending all our time trying to find cover. Our fear going forward is that we will have centres unmanned because of a lack of Doctors It was a close call in Tralee and we had no cover in Killarney the previous weekend."

SouthDoc provides family doctor services for urgent medical needs in Cork and Kerry for a 24-7 period. It also provides a call-out service to those unable to travel.

Last year, 220,000 contacts were made with the service. Last week the Killarney out-of-hours service had to close because there was no doctor available to offer the service.

The area was manned from Kenmare and Cahersiveen but this is not a long-term solution that the visa system for Doctors coming into the country is putting SouthDoc in jeopardy. 

Currently there are SouthDoc centres in Tralee, Killarney, Cahersiveen, Dingle and Kenmare. 

The service is manned by regular local GPs in each area by day but the weekend nights are covered by 'red-eye' doctors that cover bank holidays and unsocial hours. The GPs cover the cost of hiring these doctors to ensure a 24-hour service.

These Doctors typically come from countries like South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, all of which have a similar GP service to Ireland. However, the work permit scheme is hampering hiring these Doctors and putting the SouthDoc 24-hour service in danger.

The current work permit scheme, operated by the Irish Naturalisation and Immigration Service (INIS) within the Department of Justice, allows overseas GPs who are registered with the Medical Council to enter the country for 90 days.

Once the 90 days have expired, the GP cannot apply for a new permit until a 30 day cooling off period is observed which means that it can take up to 60 days for a Doctor to be allowed re-enter. 

"The Department of Justice say that these restrictions are from the HSE and they are to make it difficult to get into hospitals but it is affecting SouthDoc. The HSE are aware of this," said Dr Stack. 

He is calling on the HSE  to look at the visa restrictions and to meet with SouthDoc to discuss their concerns about the 24-hour emergency service. Financial issues are also putting pressure on the service, said Dr Stack.