The Irish Medical Organisation made this claim yesterday after it began balloting doctors over the repeatedly flagged crisis situation.
As part of its “24 No More” campaign to force the Department of Health to work within the European Working Time Directive on shift length limits, the union is asking members if they feel doctors should refuse to accept the situation any further.
The results of the nationwide ballot will be known on Sept 2.
If it proves successful any industrial action could have a devastating impact on the hospital system — with elective and clinical work expected to be hit and only emergency services left untouched.
A recent poll by trade newspaper the Medical Independent found that 97% of Ireland’s 4,800 junior doctors are in favour of some form of strike action over their conditions.
The working time directive rules outlined by the European Commission specifically state that junior doctors must not work more than 48 hours a week.
However, cutbacks and non-filled positions mean junior doctor shifts in Ireland average 60 hours a week and have been known to reach 100 hours in some locations — putting both doctors and patients at serious risk.
The IMO and the Department of Health are due to meet in the coming weeks to discuss the “crisis point” situation.
However, the union’s assistant director of industrial relations, Eric Young, said medics have lost faith in health service officials’ ability to resolve the issue of their own accord.
“We are at a crisis point in the failure of the health service,” said Mr Young.
“This circle of illegal and dangerous working hours has to be broken. It is not acceptable that the HSE continues to blatantly breach the law of the land and to think that they can do so with impunity. The HSE and the Irish Government have talked for years about fixing this appalling situation, but it is clear they will only do it if they are forced to.”
He said that in addition to the risks excessive shift lengths pose to the adequate treatment of patients and the impact they have on doctors’ general wellbeing, the issue is contributing to a surge in junior doctors leaving for the US, Australia, and New Zealand.
Mr Young said these young doctors should be the future of the health service — and that the exodus is different to previous widespread emigration situations as many medics have no intention of returning to this country after gaining further experience.