Vasectomy service suspension at specialist GP clinics in Northern Ireland 'temporary'

Around 3,500 patients awaiting a vasectomy at a GP practice in Northern Ireland have had their appointment cancelled due to funding pressures.

The Department for Health said the service suspension was "temporary" and that "no decision has been made to cease this service".

GPs were trained to perform vasectomies at specialist GP clinics in a bid to reduce hospital waiting lists.

In July of this year, the department announced funding cuts of around 50% to specialist GP clinics.

Paul McCartney and his wife have one child.

"We made the decision as a couple that that was us, so rather than my wife continuing to have that burden of making sure that she was protected and that she didn't have an unplanned pregnancy, we decided that I would have a vasectomy," he told UTV.

"When I spoke to the GP about it at the start of 2023, he advised that there was the waiting list for the hospital that would be around four years, or we could avail of the GP services where a specialist GP would be able to perform the operation in a much quicker time.

"It was only until last week when Melted Parents NI put up a post on Instagram, to say that GP services under that programme would be scrapped, that I found out that the waiting list I was on was non-existent. So we were back to the drawing board…

"What do we do as a family who want to avoid an unplanned pregnancy? We’ve made our decision and therefore how do we move forward?"

Funding cuts to Specialist GP clinics in Northern Ireland have also impacted other services.

"We had dermatology clinics, we had muscular-skeletal clinics, we’d primary care surgical clinics and then most importantly gynae, family planning and vasectomy clinics as well," said chair of the British Medical Association NI's GP Committee, Dr Alan Stout.

He added that while most of the other services "have been downturned by about 50%... it’s the vasectomy itself that has been stopped completely".

"It’s hugely frustrating. It’s about maximising what we can do in primary care to reduce the number of referrals and to free capacity in secondary care to deal with stuff that they really need to be dealing with like suspect cancers and the like, and having done that so well for the past two or three years and having got such a strong evidence base behind it, now, with the financial pressures, those services are being cut and most frustratingly of all these patients will all end up back on waiting lists which we know are already too long," said Dr Stout.

"You can’t underestimate the training and amount of time and expense that has gone into training these GPs, but not only that, once they get trained they have to maintain their accreditation so they have to do a certain number of cases to keep that accreditation.

"If we just stop the service then that accreditation goes – so it’s not a switch that you can just turn these services on an off, there’s so much more behind delivering them."

In a statement, the Department for Health told UTV that it "remains committed to the delivery of elective care services in Primary Care in line with the strategic direction of the Elective Care Framework".

"Despite the ongoing financial pressures across all departments, a total of £2.1m has been secured to support continuation of the Primary Elective Care service model across five pathways (dermatology, gynaecology, minor surgery, musculoskeletal and non-scalpel vasectomy) until 31 March 2024.

"While the primary care vasectomy service has had to be temporarily suspended, no decision has been made to cease this service.

"The department continues to work with GPs to enable continuation of all pathways within the available funding."

In the meantime, Paul and his family have decided to access the treatment through a private clinic.

"I looked into practices in Northern Ireland that would do it and they were ranging up to £2,900 which is an incredible financial burden, especially given the cost of living crisis that we’re facing at the minute," he told UTV.

"So I looked further afield and in the Republic of Ireland they were offering the same service for €550 and I was able to book that last week and get on to the list for December.

"We couldn’t delay it any further because you’re continuing that stress month on month - are we pregnant this month? Are we not pregnant this month?

"Families are having those conversations and it’s women that are feeling the burden.

"It’s better for us as a family that we’ve made the decision so we can move forward but not everyone is in the same position as us."

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