Lochside Garage

Out-of-hours services available despite unfilled shifts

THE Health and Social Care Board (HSBC) has moved to reassure the public that GP Out-of-Hours clinical services are available at all times through the contracted provider bases in Enniskillen and Omagh.
The comment was contained within a response to a series of questions around figures released under Freedom of Information, showing the extent of unfilled shifts per month to date in 2021.
This showed Western Urgent Care (WUC) had unfilled shifts in the Enniskillen base ranging from 18 per cent in October to 45 per cent in April, averaging 32.6 per cent.
The Omagh base fared slightly better with a best of 19 per cent unfilled shifts in August against a peak of 43 per cent in February, with an average of 29.2 per cent.
WUC was also asked to provide the standard rate of pay for Out-of-Hours GP services as well as during holiday cover and Christmas Day, but while deeming this “commercially sensitive” they confirmed a pay structure means some days and shifts will attract higher rates of pay to reflect the unsocial hours of work. Bank Holidays and other annual holiday periods require the higher hourly rates for all employees in the organisation.”.
The unfilled shift figures were put to the HSBC with whom WUC is contracted, and asked how long this contract has been held, when is it due to expire and if failure to provide cover is considered a breach of contract?
An HSCB spokesperson assured clinical cover is available on all occasions and, “On those instances where fewer doctors are available than scheduled, WUC plan the clinical workforce to best meet the needs of patients.”
The service provided by WUC is said to face, “Similar challenges to the other Out-of-Hours providers across Northern Ireland as a result of demand and difficulties in filling GP shifts. As such, WUC has also introduced a number of processes to deliver urgent care in alternative ways to patients, such as the use of video consultations and arranging for prescriptions to be sent to the patient’s local pharmacy. However patients who have an urgent clinical need will still be prioritised and offered a face-to-face appointment.”
The spokesperson stressed, “WUC will only refer patients to their local Emergency Department if they require emergency care”.
HSBC insisted work is continually ongoing with the Department of Health and providers to, “Closely integrate and simplify access for patients in the out-of-hours period, increasing the confidence that service users and the public have in their services.”
The response failed to answer how long WUC has held this contract, when is it due to expire; if failure of cover is considered a breach, and if costs recouped when cover is not filled?
These questions were sent back and HSBC replied stating provision is in line with the service level agreement with WUC who have held the contact since 2004.
On the basis the contract has been held since 2004 and there doesn’t appear to be any change to this or re-tender requirement in the immediate future, WUC were asked if they wished to now disclose shift payments as the issue of commercially sensitive material is questionable with no apparent competition in play.

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