Highlands beauty a poor draw for doctors used to creature comforts
Two advertising campaigns have failed, with just two hirings
Recruitment of doctors in the Highlands has proven to be a nightmare, even though the posts pay £75,000 a year, plus a “golden hello” bonus of about £5,000
It is, perhaps, the stuff of a successful TV series: a doctor comes to a remote, beautiful area, becoming embedded, even loved, in the local community.
Dutch-born Rachel Weldon travelled in 1990 to the Inner Hebrides island of Eigg with her new husband, painter Eric Weldon. From then on, she served the 200 people, or so living on Eigg and its even smaller neighbours of Muck, Rum and Canna, travelling between each in an inflatable rib, sometimes in force eight gales. Unusually for British GPs today, the Dutch doctor, known to locals by her married name, was available at all times, managing emergencies, such as mountaineering accidents on Eigg’s An Sgúrr, on her own.
The locals were fond of her. She was kind, helpful, skilful, tolerant of their foibles and discreet in a community where privacy is hard to protect.
Last year, she died. Her place in the life of Eigg and the other islands has since been filled by a locum doctor, one of an increasing number needed to fill gaps among Highland GPs. Fifty miles from Eigg on the mainland, the 300-strong village of Acharacle lost its two doctors last year, when they left for opportunities further south.
Based in his practice in nearby Mallaig, Dr Ian Gartshore came up with a plan to establish a seven-doctor practice for West Locabher, serving Mallaig, Acharacle, Arisaig, Strontian and the islands.
However, recruitment has proven to be a nightmare, even though the posts pay £75,000 a year, plus a Highlands’ “golden hello” bonus of about £5,000.
In addition, outdoor-loving medics can enjoy one of the most beautiful parts of Britain, with superb outdoor pursuits, though one that can be crushingly remote for some.
In all, the doctors would care for 3,300 patients spread over 1,242 square miles, including Britain’s most remote pub, The Old Forge – reachable only by boat, or by walking 18 miles over hills.
Two advertising campaigns have failed, with just two hirings. “These are really good jobs, but we haven’t got the package completely right, yet,” says the National Health Service’s Tracy Ligema.
Fears of a life always on call deters some, even if that is not the reality. Since 2004, NHS doctors have not provided out-of-hours services.
Older ones have become used it, while younger ones have never known otherwise. Gartshore’s plan includes on-call and weekend working, but is kept to an acceptable minimum, the NHS believes.
Reluctant initially to come to Eigg, Weldon soon fell in love with the island, taking a permanent post a year later, but she continually feared that the practice would be closed by the NHS.