A MAJOR review of primary care services in NHS Highland has been given the go-ahead in a move which could revolutionise how GPs serve patients in remote and rural communities across Scotland.

Cabinet Secretary for Health and Wellbeing Alex Neil endorsed plans to develop a new model for remote primary care in NHS Highland. It follows growing fears over the state of GP provision in rural areas, with many communities struggling to recruit and retain GPs and forced to rely on expensive locums to plug the gap.

Health boards faced criticism earlier this year when it emerged that four of them – Shetland, Orkney, Western isles, and Ayrshire and Arran – had spent £4.7 million sending locums to cover shifts in GP practices on Scottish islands over the past five years. Concerns have also been raised about the pressures facing rural GPs who are often isolated and on-call 24/7, with no colleagues for support and travelling large distances to visit patients.

The review will be developed by the Scottish Government and NHS Highland with the help of the Dewar Committee, which includes a number of GPs based in rural Highland communities.

Dave Thompson, SNP MSP for Skye, Lochaber and Badenoch, said said: "Remote and rural regions, such as those found in my constituency, face different challenges in delivering primary care services.

"The Dewar Centenary Group has already done considerable work in exploring how to better organise the NHS, and I have high hopes this pilot will provide valuable lessons not only for the future of NHS Highland but throughout Scotland."

Among the ideas being mooted to resolve primary care pressures in rural areas are to link up various GP practices, so that several doctors can share the load and cover for one another during holidays or sick leave without the need to call in a locum.

The difficulties facing medics in remote communities was highlighted this summer in cases such as the suicide of GP Dr Rachel Weldon, who had been a respected doctor for the islands of Muck, Eigg, Rhum and Canna for 12 years.