A fundamental review of the GP out-of-hours service right across the Southern Trust area has been called for after revelations that local bases have been closed hundreds of times over recent months.
And there have been demands too for Armagh and Kilkeel to be given equitable treatment to neighbouring areas in terms of access to medical treatment.
It has been claimed eight GP out-of-hours bases have been closed a staggering 347 times over the past eight months.
And this, in turn, has been putting pressures on local hospitals and neighbouring services.
Newry and Armagh SDLP MLA Justin McNulty is horrified at the figures for a service which he has described as “essential”.
“It is not there to replace your local GP Service and should only be relied upon out-of-hours for cases which do not merit being dealt with at the Emergency Department,” he said.
“Upon contacting the GP out-of-hours service, triage is completed over the phone and a decision is made for the patient to either come to the local base in either Armagh, Craigavon, Dungannon, Kilkeel or Newry.
“Alternatively a home visit by the GP is arranged or the patient may be directed to the nearest emergency department in Newry or Craigavon.”
But the MLA said he had become “increasingly concerned” over recent months by the way the service has been operated.
Mr McNulty added: “Too often people from Armagh and Kilkeel are being told that the local out-of-hours base is closed due to lack of medical cover and they have been directed to go to Craigavon, Dungannon or Newry.
“The Kilkeel base was closed 104 times, Dungannon 91, Armagh 77, Craigavon 39 and Newry 36 times over the period January to August.
“The ironic fact is that Dungannon has a Minor Injuries Unit, Craigavon and Newry have Emergency Departments, whereas Armagh and Kilkeel are left with nothing. This is simply not acceptable.
“I want to see a fundamental review of the service. The problem remains that we are depending on GPs, many of whom have already completed a day’s work in their own surgery to come and operate the out-of-hours service.
“We need to get to the point where the service is standalone and let GPs do their day jobs and have a quota or directly recruited GPs dedicated to running an out-of-hours service so that it is functional at all times.
“This is something which must be reviewed as a priority.”
A Southern Trust spokesperson said: “The Southern Trust GP Out of Hours service has never been closed to residents in this area.
“As a phone-based service, patients must always phone first and the phone lines are always open at evenings and weekends.
“During those times when a GP Out of Hours centre is closed due to the ongoing challenge of securing enough clinical cover for all shifts, patients are still able to get telephone advice, home visits continue to take place and appointments are provided at the nearest available GP out of hours base, if required.
“Remember GP Out of Hours is for serious urgent problems – if it’s not serious urgent, you should wait until your own GP surgery reopens.”