A COUNTY Durham GP surgery is under threat again as health bosses push ahead with plans to tackle staffing pressures.

Skerne Medical Group (SMG) came under fire last year after revealing plans to halve the number of sites it operated from – from four surgeries to two.

This followed a review of practice sites due to falling GP numbers with a bid to close two sites from 2019.

Although SMG won permission from the region’s clinical commissioning group (CCG) to close its Trimdon Village site, plans for Fishburn were rejected, following issues with the way the practice advertised the proposals.

Earlier this year, SMG had another consultation, holding public drop-in events, physical surveys and online forms on future options for the practice.

On Thursday, the results were presented at a Durham County Council’s health scrutiny committee meeting

Of the five options floated during the process, the most popular for ‘patients who expressed a preference’ could see the Fishburn site close for good.

This includes extending the practice’s Sedgefield base, Harbinson House and retaining and extending their surgery in Trimdon Colliery.

Trimdon and Thornley councillor, Jude Grant, a vocal critic of the decision to close Trimdon Village surgery, was not convinced.

She raised concerns about more patients having to travel further for care and land ownership issues around planned extensions.

Cllr Grant added multi-site GP practices were functioning elsewhere in the division without staffing issues and called for NHS bosses to work to attract a GP practice to “fill the void” left in the area.

She said: “I have every sympathy with SMG, they’re in a quandary but I think there could have been much more creative ways of looking at it.

“Obviously this leaves great swathes of people across Trimdon Village and Fishburn now having to travel when two surgeries have closed in the space of a year.”

Joseph Chandy, director of commissioning strategy and delivery at Durham Dales, Easington and Sedgefield’s CCG, said keeping the Fishburn practice open would be “financially advantageous” for the practice and said it could be passed on to successive partners.

He added the only way to put a new practice in the area would be to go out to the market for an ‘alternative provider' contract. But councillors were told there was a lack of interest for such an option.

Mr Chandy added: “Those areas of the country that are doing that are finding there are no takers, no-one from the independent sector wanted to get into general practice.”

SMG bosses said issues around attracting salaried GPs were a national problem – with new doctors preferring flexible working.

In recent months, the practice has hired four new GPs – three currently in post and one starting in January 2020.

SMG partner, Dr Christine Hearmon said: “We still have some gaps to fill and inevitably that will always be the case but ultimately we think our [staff] turnover situation will significantly reduce and provide more certainty about the way the practice can operate in the longer term."

“People will hold on knowing that things are going to change for the better but ultimately the change for the better is for us to maintain the team that delivers the service for patients.”

Plans to close Fishburn surgery will be presented to the CCG later this year, and if approved, the bid will be sent to NHS England for final decision.

SMG estimate it would be a minimum of 18 months before it would close if plans are given the go-ahead.

This aims to allow time for extension works to take place at its remaining two sites.