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Health / Six months, zero job applications – the struggle to recruit a GP in Hillswick

HILLSWICK GP Dr Susan Bowie describes herself as the “eternal optimist”.

But after receiving no applications for a salaried associate GP vacancy at her Northmavine surgery in six months of advertising, you may forgive her for losing a touch of that positive outlook.

It has been described as a job with one of Shetland’s best views – looking out past the West Ayre beach in Hillswick, with sea stacks in sight.

Susan Bowie.

There are plenty of other perks too – not least a pay packet of £60,000 for working less than 30 weeks of the year, giving plenty of time for locum jobs on the side; or travel and adventure, as the job description suggests.

There would also be the chance to stay in the house next to the surgery – meaning an applicant moving up from south would not have to go through the struggle of finding a place to stay, like many others are at the moment.

Bowie runs the Hillswick practice the post would be based in, and has done so for many years. It is only one of two practices in Shetland that are not directly run by the NHS, with Levenwick the other.

She believes her case is symptomatic of a wider recruitment challenge in healthcare that goes far beyond Hillswick and Shetland.

Bowie said a key part of this is not enough GPs being trained in the country.

“It takes 11 years to train a GP and we’re not training enough,” she said. “And we also lose a lot of GPs out the system.”

The doctor said an increasing number of people who were training as GPs are going off to countries like Canada, Australia and New Zealand, while not as many are coming into the UK from abroad.

“I think Brexit has been a huge cause of loss of GPs as well,” Bowie added.

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“I think this wee practice is a wee bit like the canary in the coal mine, because we’re far away from the centre, so when things become difficult we really feel it.”

Having an associate GP at Hillswick allows Bowie to take time off, for example, and employing temporary locums to fill this gap comes at a significant cost.

“They [locums] cost anything between £500 and £900 a day,” she said. “You can’t keep up with that for very long, not in a wee practice.”

So what are the solutions? Training more GPs is an obvious one, but she said back in her day there was a desire among young people to work in the NHS.

She questioned if there needs to be that “almost idealism” generated again among young people coming out of school.

Then there is the idea of paying medical students when they are training.

“So maybe if we pay them could we get payback,” Bowie said. “If we pay and train them could they agree to stay for a wee while within their chosen specialty?”

The associate GP vacancy at the Hillswick surgery, which has more than 800 patients on its books from across the North Mainland, has come up because of a retirement.

Bowie has her own future to think about too. “Obviously at 65 and a half I’m looking to see if there’s anybody out there that might be interested in coming and being my colleague and maybe taking over the practice for me,” she said.

But for now, it is about finding a new colleague.

“It is an absolutely brilliant job in a brilliant place, with lovely staff and great patients,” Bowie said. “What’s not to like?”

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