The number of people turning to Accident and Emergency Departments at Southern Trust hospitals including South Tyrone and Craigavon Area is rising at the fastest rate in Northern Ireland.
Pressures are at crisis levels at Craigavon Area Hospital casualty department, with patients now having to wait the longest at any hospital in Northern Ireland, with an average waiting time of one hour and fifteen minutes from triage to treatment.
Analysis of the latest emergency care statistics shows the number of patients turning to casualty departments in the local trust has risen by almost 27,000 since 2012, with 173,303 visits in the past year, a rise of 18 percent.
The Western Trust has the next highest rise in patients at 16%, while in the Belfast Trust the rise was just 6%.
Local doctors say the dramatic rise and long waiting times are no surprise at all and link it to chronic underfunding in primary care services, as well as cuts to hospital services which have led to increased waiting lists and more work being transferred to already overwhelmed GPs.
There are fears that the crisis will worsen with GPs now saying they have no option but to cut services including introducing half-day closing.
Dr Tom Black, chair of the BMA’s Northern Ireland committee for GPs, said funding cuts and the lack of a rescue plan for GPs had forced the withdrawal of services.
It is thought as many as 20 practices in Northern Ireland could close this year as GPs grapple with the excessive workload and severe recruitment problems.
Amidst political standstill there has still been no funding for the rescue package which was agreed at the end of 2016 to prevent the collapse of general practice.
Dr Black said: ‘GP practices have to prioritise clinical work – actual time spent with patients – by withdrawing some services previously provided by practices.
‘This will free up more GP time for direct patient care.’
He added that half-day closing would only be considered if a practice ‘was under such pressure that it would actually improve the service to patients’.
A spokesperson for the Southern Trust said: “Despite the growing pressures, last year, most of our patients (95%) were triaged (initially assessed) within 24 minutes of arrival in our Emergency Departments – among the lowest in Northern Ireland.
“Most (78%) of our patients began treatment within 2 hours of Triage. Unfortunately, some of our patients waited longer than the 12 hour Ministerial target for their treatment to be finished, or to be admitted into hospital or discharged and we very much regret that these people had a longer wait.
“Our staff worked tirelessly to ensure that the Emergency Department is operating in the most effective way possible but we need the public’s help to achieve this.
“People should only come to the Emergency Department if they have serious and urgent conditions.
“There are significant numbers of people attending our emergency departments with minor ailments and they are diverting doctors and nurses from the job of dealing with people who are real emergencies. There are other services available like Minor Injuries, GP or GP Out of Hours and pharmacies that can help you so please think carefully before choosing the right one – go to: https://www.nidirect.gov.uk/articles/how-use- your-health- services”.