A CHRONIC shortage of junior doctors in our hospitals is putting patients at risk and almost prompted the closure of one of the country’s largest emergency departments last week.
Dr Chris Luke, a consultant in emergency medicine at Cork University Hospital and the city’s Mercy University Hospital, issued the stark warning as new figures, released under Freedom of Information, revealed the HSE were forced to pay over €1 million in overtime last year to just 10 junior doctors in the mid-west region.
The figures also show how one junior doctor worked so much overtime last year he was paid over €200,000 – four times the annual salary of a registrar.
Dr Luke suggested such working practices were putting the health of doctors and their patients in peril.
Dr Luke placed the blame for this crisis on the policies of Government departments, the royal medical colleges and the Irish Medical Council.
“They are the powers- that-be and between them they have created an extraordinarily difficult situation in the health service.
“Last Wednesday, we came close to closing the emergency department at the Mercy. Things have reached breaking point there and we are not far from the same situation at the CUH.
“I don’t want to frighten people and I recognise that is a problem that is not confined to Ireland... Nevertheless, under-staffing is hazardous for patients and doctors and it is something we must address here as a matter of urgency.”
Dr Matthew Sadlier, chairman of the non-consultant hospital doctor committee of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), echoed Dr Luke’s concerns and said the reason some medics are being paid “ridiculous amounts of overtime” was because they “are being asked to work ridiculous amounts of overtime”.
Both Fine Gael and Labour described the work practices as a poor use of resources.
Dr Luke said five years ago a study on medical manpower by Professor Patrick Fottrell recommended a substantial increase in the number of medical students in Ireland to serve the needs of Irish patients.
“Remarkably, the powers- that-be in Ireland’s health service contrived to make matters unimaginably worse and now their laissez-faire strategy has reportedly resulted in many dozens of non-consultant hospital doctor posts remaining empty, particularly at the frontline. This situation is unparalleled in terms of hazard to patients.”
He described the root causes for the decline as “indifference, incompetence and ideology” and suggested an urgent “triple therapy” to cure the health service’s ills. This would include employing more medical graduates in emergency departments, the use of highly trained and experienced super-nurses and a system of indenture to encourage young doctors to work in unpopular locations for a fixed term.
“Just a generation ago, a quarter of all junior doctors in these islands were employed at any one time in our A&E departments, and almost all agreed it was an invaluable experience for their subsequent medical careers,” said Dr Luke.
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