The Western Trust has acknowledged that while there is a heavy reliance on locum doctors across the health service it faces particular recruitment challenges as a peripheral health authority.
A spokesperson said: “The Western Trust experiences particular challenges recruiting medical staff due to its geographical location. These unique challenges result in agency and locum medical staff having to be used to maintain services.
“The Western Trust spent approximately £17.3m on agency and locum doctors across its hospitals and community services in 2017/18.
“The Western Trust has engaged in an international recruitment campaign for the past four years to address this shortage and to date has recruited approximately over 90 doctors through this campaign into the NHS.
"We also use an electronic app within the Trust to encourage Trust doctors to fill vacant locum slots to ease the burden on agency spend. This also contributes to the safe and effective continuity of care to our patients.
“The Western Trust also supports the plans for a Medical School at Ulster University’s Magee Campus, as an initiative to increase the number of medical students in the region, to protect our future workforce”.
SDLP health spokesman Mark H. Durkan said an increase in locum spend from £28million in 2011/12 to £83million in 2017/18 across the North’s health service was “an appalling frittering away of vital capital”.
“Previous health ministers were more than aware of this crippling recruitment issue but failed to implement sustainable, workable solutions. The ongoing stalemate has denied any opportunity for intervention, allowing costs to spiral and for the situation to worsen.
“The writing has been on the wall for a number of years, unfortunately regarding the crisis unfolding within the Department of Health; that writing is now indelible.
“The Gardiner report recently highlighted these challenges and the need for increased medical places- particularly within the Western Trust where 22 per cent of the total medical pay bill was spent on locums. Resourcing is the foundation on which we can rebuild the Department of Health, and is why I have stressed the importance of a medical school in Derry for a number of years now.
“The 1,800 unfilled medical positions as of September last year are testament to the ‘brain drain’ in the North- losing our qualified medical specialists to more lucrative opportunities across the water,” he declared.
Sinn Féin's local health spokesperson, Councillor Sandra Duffy, said: “The recent Audit Office follow up report into the use of locum doctors and patient safety highlights the ongoing challenges to our health and social care system.
“The transformation of our health service need to address these core challenges of workforce pressures and ensuring high quality safe services that deliver better health outcomes.
“The increasing use of locum staff and the rising cost to provide these services is unsustainable.
“It is why we need to invest in growing our workforce through additional training places and in how we retain staff - this was a central theme of the Delivering Together action plan to transform our health services as developed by Michelle O’Neill.
“The report goes on to highlight some progress in how adverse incidents and serious adverse incidents are handled but there is still a considerable way to go to fully address this issue.
“High profile failings around the Hyponatremia Inquiry, Dunmurry Manor, the Neurology recall and issues at Muckamore Abbey Hospital has made it clear that there is still a considerable way to go to improve transparency and accountability within the health service. This is the very least these patients and families are entitled to.
“Sinn Féin will be raising this issue directly with the Department of Health and seeking an update on how it is progressing its workforce strategy, the North West Medical School and developing a duty of candour.”