VACANCIES in a number of GP practices in the Highlands and islands are being filled for weeks at a time by doctors travelling up from England as part of a scheme which is now set to be rolled out to other rural areas.

The recruitment initiative funded by the Scottish Government has signed up 27 GPs to date following adverts posted in the British Medical Journal in 2018.

The vast majority are from England and are either retired or close to retirement.

Participants in the scheme, known as “Rediscover the Joy of General Practice”, agree to work for 12 to 18 weeks annually, in stints of one to four weeks at a time, in GP practices in the Highlands, Western Isles, Orkney and Shetland, which have struggled with doctor shortages.

It can include providing cover in single-handed practices when the sole GP goes on holiday or requires leave due to sickness or bereavement.

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“The Joy” GPs are employed via NHS Shetland and paid a fixed salary by the GP practices, making it cheaper than employing locums.

Although membership of the scheme was available to GPs across the UK – including in Scotland – it has proved particularly popular among GPs from England.

Ralph Roberts, chairman of the Scottish Rural Medicine Collaborative (SRMC), which is overseeing the project, said: “Part of the point was to bring a new pool of GPs into Scotland so we were very keen to attract from outside Scotland.

“I think it’s about a change of scene and that this is an opportunity for people who want to practise medicine without a lot of the bureaucracy around running your own practice.”

Mr Roberts, who is currently the chief executive of NHS Borders but was in charge of NHS Shetland when The Joy scheme was drawn up, said the SRMC will carry out a second recruitment drive later this year to increase the GP pool.

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Plans are also under way to expand it into other health board areas, including potentially Dumfries and Galloway, he added.

The scheme will also be exhibited from today at the Royal College of General Practitioners’ annual primary care conference in Liverpool.

One Joy recruit is Dr Peter Glennon, 62, who recently retired from general practice in Stafford.

He said: “I could have carried on working as a locum in Stafford but I was drawn to the challenge of The Joy. I still have plenty of drive and energy, and that’s certainly needed with this work.”

Dr Glennon’s work as a member of The Joy team has taken him to Wick, where he did a four-week stint, and he is lined up to practise over the winter in Acharacle in Lochaber, Stornoway and Carbost on Skye.

“It can be challenging,” he said. “Working in remote locations, you need to be a super-generalist and be able to deal with just about anything. I understand that some GPs may be apprehensive about working in communities far away from big hospitals, for example, but that’s part of the appeal for me.

“What’s more, it’s nice to work as a salaried GP. It’s refreshing to have just clinical work to do, without the bureaucracy involved in being a partner in a practice.”

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Dr Helen Willows, a Shropshire-based locum GP, has plugged gaps in Scalloway and Brae in Shetland and in Stornoway in the Western Isles.

She said: “I started working in medicine relatively late in life, when I was in my 30s, and at 62 I feel I have plenty of energy to take on something different. The Joy is certainly that. It’s pretty full-on work but I’m able to practise as what I would call an old-fashioned GP.

“I can think creatively and independently and I don’t have to involve myself in much of the bureaucracy that can be involved in general practice.”

She added that her husband, a retired engineer, was able to join her while she worked in Scotland.

“We’re enjoying our time here and I would envisage doing this for another few years,” she said.

It comes after figures last year revealed that the GP crisis was so severe in some places that locum GPs could charge £1,000 per shift.

NHS Orkney paid one locum GP £1,400 for a single day’s work.

Martine Scott, the SMRC’s programme manager, said: “Because of recruitment issues, some GP practices in remote and rural Scotland have closed, some have had to merge, and many have had to use locum doctors, which is expensive and does not lend itself to continuity of care.

“However, through The Joy we now have a highly motivated team of very experienced GPs who are helping boards and practices to fill gaps that would have been hard to fill.”