A crisis-hit medical practice which serves two north-east communities could be handed over to new management after bosses have failed to hire new staff.
NHS Grampian currently operates the An Caorann Medical Practice, which has about 5,300 patients between the villages of Aberchirder and Portsoy on its books.
But after prolonged struggles to bring GPs to the region, it could now be contracted out to an independent firm who would bring in its own doctors.
The proposal comes just months after the NHS warned patients they would not be seen by their GP unless it was an emergency.
The “immediate emergency plan”, which was put into action in April, urged patients to only call the practice if they needed to see someone that same day – as there were only two doctors working within the patch.
Patients were instead to attend the hospital in Banff – nine miles away – with minor injuries or call NHS 24.
Now, if an agreement can be reached between NHS Grampian and a new group willing to take on the practice’s patients, the keys could be handed over.
Last night, a spokeswoman for the NHS stressed that the move would not mean patients would be charged for their medical care.
“Most practices in Grampian operate as independent practices,” she said.
“This means that they have a contract with NHS Grampian to provide general medical services with staff being employed by the practice rather than NHS Grampian.”
She added that, in the meantime, the health board and staff at An Caorann were continuing with efforts to recruit GPs and consider future options.
“Disruption to the service is unavoidable at this time, but we will ensure that GPs at the practice are available for the highest priority cases,” she said.
“Unfortunately, this means for the time being no GP appointments can be made in advance. Only on the day appointments can be made.
“Whilst recognising that this will not suit all patients and cause some inconvenience, practice staff really appreciate the understanding already shown by patients.”
At present, the Aberchirder branch of the practice is only open when needed while the general medical service is run out of Portsoy full-time.
Conservative MSP Peter Chapman welcomed the proposed move forward, but said that the residents of both villages “deserved better” from their medical practice.
“Because of the staffing problems, the Aberchirder surgery closed completely and this contributed to poor service,” he said.
“There has been a long period of uncertainty for patients.
“I’d hope the new contract will lead to the surgery reopening soon.
“These communities deserve better service.”
Aberdeenshire Council has also been involved in attempting to resolve staffing issues at the practice.
A spokeswoman said a previous attempt to form an independent practice in the villages had collapsed because an agreement could not be reached with a group of GPs who had offered to take it on.
She said: “Earlier this year the idea of An Caorann Medical Practice becoming an independent contractor was explored – to try and ensure sustainability.
“Following submission of a full business case all options were explored but no suitable agreement could be reached.”