Addressing a forum on medical education at the University of Limerick, Dr John Hillery warned against turf wars among existing and new medical colleges.
He said Irish medicine is at a crossroads and has to choose the right people to be doctors amid total reform of the health service.
Dr Hillery said: “I am afraid that Ireland may become known for the quantity of its medical schools rather than the standard of its doctors. It is time for more public debate.”
Although millions of euro is being spent on medical education, he asked whether the right people are being brought into the profession.
He asked: “Are we choosing people with an end-point in mind of graduation or of lifelong development and attainment of job satisfaction?
“Are we choosing people to be technicians in an increasingly technical field or is there more to medicine than that?”
Dr Hillery said he was brought up to think of medicine as a vocation.
“This idea is being questioned daily in the media, in the Oireachtas and in conversations in the light of public scandals. This is unfair. The examples of a few people’s bad behaviour cannot be used to interpret the actions of the group.”
He said unfounded generalised criticisms of doctors or attempts to undermine the nature of the profession will only serve to turn the committed away.
Dr Hillery said most studies of the public and their doctors show that, despite media soundbites to the contrary, patients trust their doctors.
He also told the event: “The talk recently has focused on regulation of doctors. We need workable regulation of clinicians and non-clinicians that nurtures responsibility, teamwork, pride in high standards and satisfaction in a job well done.”
He said clinical governance and audit structures that support staff in attaining high standards are needed.
In the debate on medical education, little is heard on how to educate, who to educate and what we are educating for.
Dr Hillery said we must also ask how best to use the resources of a small nation to train doctors, adding: “I believe this lies in co-operation rather than competition.”
Unfortunately, he said, it appears a competition has commenced between longstanding stakeholders and some new players.
Medical education, he said, is too important to be reduced to this.