Tens of thousands of people are affected by a “severe” shortage of family doctors as new figures show 13 GP areas for medical card holders have been without a permanent physician for a year or longer.
Health Service Executive figures show there are 26 vacancies for doctors on General Medical Services (GMS) panels covering more than 17,000 medical card holders.
More than half of these vacancies are in towns and villages in rural areas. The numbers do not include tens of thousands more private patients served by GPs in these areas.
The Irish College of General Practitioners (ICGP) has warned of a “severe” shortage of GPs with 2,000 doctors required to cover current shortages and doctors due to retire over the next five to 10 years.
It has called on Minister for Health Stephen Donnelly to establish a working group on the future of general practice to seek "innovative" solutions to "the GP workforce crisis".
Dr John Farrell, a GP based in in Cahir, Co Tipperary, and chairman of the ICGP board, said the shortage was a "major issue" for healthcare in communities.
“While the 26 vacant panels is a fairly stark statistic, that is 26 towns and villages without a GP which is affecting tens of thousands of people,” he said.
The numbers affected increased significantly when the number of GP surgeries with vacancies for doctors or who cannot find locums was added, he said.
He said people relocating to rural areas to avoid rising housing costs in cities added to the pressure on GP surgeries, with some practices having closed their lists to new patients.
“We are not training enough doctors and there are not enough doctors going into general practice,” he said.
The ICGP plans to increase the number of GPs trained a year to 350 from 250 currently.
Dr Denis McCauley, chair of the GP committee of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), said it had "to sell general practice again" to young doctors and that new flexible arrangements were needed to attract doctors discouraged by long out-of-hours work in single-handed rural practices.
Locations where GMS panel jobs have remained vacant for a year or longer include Monaghan with 741 medical card holders; Kilkenny city and Ballyragget, Co Kilkenny (604), and Clifden, Co Galway (560).
The HSE said vacant panels represent less than 1 per cent of the 2,500 GMS GPs working nationally. Cover is arranged through “a locum or other appropriate arrangement to maintain services in communities until the vacant panel is filled”, it said.
Dr McCauley noted the added benefits of “continuous care by the same practice team”, saying people who know they can easily access a regular GP tend not to attend as often.