Foreign doctors answer to N.H.S. S.O.S.

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Western Trust boss Elaine Way says foreign doctors are being especially recruited to help reduce the rising cost of expensive locums, which has risen to £12m this year, and is crippling the health authority’s attempts to break even.

She says the Western Trust is a special case when it comes to locums, which are vital to ensure patient safety, but are costing about twice as much here than in every other health authority bar Belfast.

“Our attempts to control our workforce costs are somewhat undermined because of our unique difficulties in attracting and retaining staff due to the fact that we are on the periphery.

“You are well aware of the additional medical locum costs and so on that we pay.

“However, we do not see ourselves as hopeless, and in our [savings] plan we describe a very ambitious international doctor recruitment programme.

“By December, we will have 22 overseas doctors working in our organisation as we try to reduce spend in this area,” she told MLAs during a briefing of the Stormont Health Committee.

She said the cost of locums has risen from £10.6m in 2014/15 to £12m in 2015/16.

The Trust is currently trying to achieve savings of £11.4 million this year, which is already “extremely challenging” given it’s already shaved off £66 million in efficiency savings.

since its establishment in 2007.

However, the single biggest hindrance to achieving these aims is paying for locums.

And Mrs Way told MLAs the Western Trust is a special case in this regard.

“My single biggest financial pressure in the Western Trust is the cost of medical locums to keep services safe.

“Last year, we spent over £10.6 million on medical locums, and that cost is rising this year.

“I think that there has now been an acceptance regionally that that is an exceptional pressure on the Western Trust.”

She later added: “Last year, we spent £10.6 million on medical locums. This year, I think that I will spend about £12 million on locums. My colleagues spend - forgetting Belfast; I never compare myself with Belfast, Michael [McBride] - about £6 million or £7 million on locums.

“I know that because I watch the figures and responses to questions in the Assembly and so on. You can see that that is a particular issue.”

DUP MLA Gary Middleton welcomed the international recruitment drive and suggested an improved A6 road between Londonderry and Belfast would also help lessen the problem.

Mrs Way responded: “As I have often said, if only we could move Altnagelvin closer to Belfast, we would be OK.

“In reality, however, as my colleague chief executives and I know, anybody can live in Belfast and travel to Craigavon, Antrim or the Ulster Hospital.”

But at present the better quality of life enjoyable in the North West is the only real draw for health staff locating here.

Belfast Trust boss and Chief Medical Officer Michael McBride said: “I am regularly invited to Altnagelvin, where Elaine is responsible for the services.

“Every time I go, I am hugely impressed, and I always come back over the Glenshane Pass having stolen ideas.

“The last time I was down, I was chatting to a number of medical and nursing staff and asked them, ‘Why here?’ There is no doubt about the quality of life that they feel that they get in the west of the Province, and one doctor said, ‘Because I like surfing.’”