All parts of the health service are under pressure going into “a critical" year for patients, the incoming president of the Irish Medical Organisation has warned.
Speaking at the organisation’s annual general meeting on Saturday, Dr Clive Kilgallen said challenges include unacceptable waiting lists, an exhausted workforce along with major problems with the recruitment and retention of doctors.
“Unfortunately, the reality after Covid is the same as the reality before Covid. All sections of the health services are under pressure,” he said.
This year is “critical” for patients, he said as there is a pent-up demand for treatments and care after the delays caused by Covid-19 lockdowns and reduced healthcare access.
The pandemic exposed the fragility of the health services, he said Patients are also possibly facing the cancellation of more operations as a ballot by junior doctors – non-consultant hospital doctors – on industrial action concludes by June 9.
Referring to the health minister’s comments at the AGM that working conditions for these doctors are “completely unacceptable”, Dr Kilgallen said it is time for the HSE and Department of Health to commence negotiations with the IMO to resolve these serious issues.
Earlier, the AGM heard that working conditions for junior doctors are “a monumental act of self-harm” by the HSE and Government.
A motion in support of these trainee doctors, known as non-consultant hospital doctors (NCHD), was unanimously passed at the IMO AGM.
Junior doctors are currently balloting for possible industrial action, and have said they regularly work 80 hours a week in breach of the working hours rules in the EU.
Dr John Cannon, chairman of the NCHD Committee of the IMO, said: “The current system is bad for doctors and unsafe for patients. We are driving more and more NCHDs abroad and there is no reason for them to come back. Current contract issues are a monumental act of self-harm by the HSE and the Government.”
He said unless things change there is no other option but to take industrial action.
“We as doctors want to treat and help patients but our current working conditions are actually unsafe for the very patients, we are trying to deliver care to,” he said.
“Taking industrial action is not an easy decision and we hope that it does not come to that, but it is entirely in the hands of the HSE and Government.”
Among the issues highlighted are “systemic and persistent” breaches of contract around illegal working hours and lack of transparency around payment for the hours worked.
Junior doctors move locations frequently during their training and are often placed on emergency tax, the AGM heard. They are also looking for guaranteed access to annual leave and study leave.
The union is also calling for a “full contract review” to take into account how the workforce has changed, including the greater number of women and older trainees compared to times past.
“NCHDs are united, resolute, and determined to get progress on these issues. We will not settle for more lip service or promises of some great future, we need action now,” he said.
“This dispute needs to be resolved and we are prepared to enter negotiations to make the health service a safer place for patients and doctors alike.”
The IMO called on the HSE and Government to address the inequalities for junior doctors across hospitals, general practice, public health, and community health services.
The AGM is also hearing discussions around the health needs of Ukrainians in Ireland and the crisis facing patients accessing care in different areas of the health service.
The threat of industrial action from junior doctors follows hospitals and GPs facing significant disruption during the last two weeks when medical scientists downed tools in protest over a long-running pay dispute.