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Firstly I would like to wish you a Happy Christmas. I know many of you will be working over the holidays, continuing to deliver a first class service to patients across Northern Ireland despite increasing resource constraints.
The past year has been a challenging one for doctors and medical students.
The challenges facing junior doctors entering the profession were in sharp focus over the past year with colleagues in England facing contract imposition and undertaking full strike action for the first time in 40 years. We strongly welcomed health minister Michelle O’Neill’s clear statement that she will not impose a contract on junior doctors in Northern Ireland. Over the last year, members from all branches of practice have told us about the pressures they are under in their working lives. We have lobbied to ensure that all doctors in Northern Ireland have the right working environment, and doctors in training have been a particular focus for this.
Over the next year we will be working closely with the Department of Health and Trusts to get them to take some practical steps to improve the working lives of junior doctors – proper rest rooms and facilities, better integration of rota planning to take account of the need to facilitate training as well as maintain a work-life balance, a full single lead employer – all of these measures can help ensure doctors trained in Northern Ireland want to stay and work here.
BMA Northern Ireland carried out a full programme of political lobbying for the Assembly elections in May, based on the issues affecting doctors and medical students set out in our manifesto.
Following the election, Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill took up the post of health minister. In October she published a new 10 year vision for health and social care.
Meetings held with her to date have been positive, with the minister showing a commitment to listen to doctors and hopefully involve them in the changes ahead.
This year also saw the publication of the Bengoa Report on which the minister’s vision for health is based. We are no strangers to health reports in Northern Ireland – Hayes, Donaldson, TYC – however, as outlined by the report’s author Professor Rafael Bengoa, we are now faced with a ‘burning platform’, we can no longer stand back and hope the system rights itself.
Members got to hear and discuss these issues directly with Professor Bengoa when he spoke at our annual BMA Northern Ireland lecture in late November.
The report has come out at a time when both primary and secondary care are facing immense challenges. Our GP in Crisis campaign to date has received over 40,000 patient signatures in support of our calls for change in how general practice is funded and resourced. Dr Tom Black and Dr Alan Stout gave evidence to the Assembly Health Committee reinforcing to MLAs the immense pressure GPs are under. We are now facing the possibility of general practice colleagues resigning from the health service in order to ensure that a service remains in place for patients. Doctors and patients have both sent a clear message to Northern Ireland government throughout this year that general practice must be properly funded and resourced. 2017 must see this happen.
Secondary care has also seen continued staffing shortages. There are currently an estimated 250 unfilled consultant posts, with some specialties facing shortages that are impacting on the delivery of patient care. Over the next year we will continue to lobby for more effective medical workforce planning and highlight the issues secondary care doctors are facing. We will also work to make sure they have a strong voice in the development of any service changes.
The main meeting of the BMA year, the Annual Representative Meeting was held in Belfast for the first time in 10 years, with a large attendance from local doctors. Among many successful activities, we hosted a widening participation event for local schools to promote medicine as a career. Focusing on some of the schools where medicine would not traditionally be a career path, the event brought 17 schools and 98 pupils to the Waterfront Hall where they were able to meet doctors and medical students from across the UK. We are planning another widening participation event for 2017.
At local level, LNCs (Local Negotiating Committees) within each Trust have continued to work on issues affecting members in their daily working lives. This is a vital role and I would encourage members to find out what their local LNC is working on and to get involved. You can help to make the difference for doctors working in your hospital.
Throughout this year the BMA Northern Ireland committees and staff continued to work on your behalf delivering training, representing doctors and medical students and ensuring your membership is value for money.
We held 83 events during the year, attended by almost 3,000 members. Our industrial relations team dealt with over 550 cases in 2016 and continues to have the highest member satisfaction ratings in the BMA.
We have sent members electronic newsletters throughout the year on a range of topics and will continue to ensure you are aware of issues affecting you and the profession. We had 478 mentions in print and broadcast media, bringing your issues to a wide audience and raising awareness of your concerns and views
Politically, we have been working to ensure that the views of members are being heard by politicians and policy makers. It has been a busy year with BMA members giving Assembly evidence on issues including public health, medical workforce and health infrastructure. We continued our lobbying for minimum unit pricing for alcohol, as well as calling for further controls on smoking. We will continue to strengthen the BMA voice with politicians and decision makers in the coming year.
Once again may I take this opportunity to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year and I look forward to working with, and for you in 2017.
Dr John D Woods is BMA Northern Ireland council chair