Dr James Reilly, Minister for Health Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

Health service 'reaching breaking point' over doctor shortages

The warning comes as it emerged just 60 of nearly 300 doctors recruited from India and Pakistan have been registered to begin working.

IRELAND’S CREAKING HEALTH services will soon hit “breaking point” if swift action is not taking to tackle overcrowding and doctor shortages, a senior consultant has warned.

John McInerney, a consultant in emergency medicine, said hospitals have been under severe strain during the summer – usually a quieter time for health services. He said a winter increase in illness among older people, coupled with a possible further swine flu outbreak, could spark a system-wide crisis.

If the problem is like this now in the summer months, what’s it going to be like when we have maybe another outbreak of H1N1? The elderly get much sicker in the winter. We’re going to be at breaking point.

Dr McInerney’s comments on RTÉ radio came as it emerged that only a small fraction of the 280 junior doctors recruited at considerable expense in India and Pakistan earlier this year had successfully registered to begin work.

Health minister James Reilly confirmed this morning that just 60 had cleared all the paperwork hurdles – with a significant number not even passing an initial exam. “Over 80 per cent of doctors who came and took an exam passed,” he told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland. “I think the difficulty for the Medical Council has been in collecting correct documentation, and that is being pursued aggressively.”

In the meantime, the doctors are living in Ireland, staying in B&Bs and hospital accommodation. However, the HSE has confirmed that they are not being paid – instead receiving free meals in hospital canteens and an allowance.

In a statement, the HSE said that the Irish Medical Council required the doctors’ employers to complete a declaration that they were working in an appropriate post. However, there was a change in the administrative status of the doctors recruited from India and Pakistan. The Medical Council “indicated that the original declarations that had been submitted were no longer satisfactory” and asked for new forms towards the end of August, the HSE said – well after the doctors had arrived in Ireland

Staffing deficit

Minister Reilly said when all the doctors had been registered, there would be more working in the health service than last year. However, Dr McInerney, who is also honorary secretary of the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine, said junior doctors alone were not enough to tackle the understaffing issue. “We still have a 30 per cent deficit in registrars in emergency departments across the system, and that has not been rectified by the current recruitment,” he said. “These are senior house officers that have been recruited, rather than registrars who are senior doctors.”

He added that the skill deficit is exacerbating the overcrowding crisis, which last month hit its highest level since 2006. “Obviously the problem is that if you have overcrowding and not enough experienced doctors, that just leads to further delay,” he said.

A spokesperson for the HSE said in a statement: “The HSE is committed to ensuring the registration process moves ahead as quickly as is possible with due regard to the need for arrangements that ensure patient safety and quality of care.”

Read more: Doctors arrive from abroad to help stricken Emergency depts>

Read more: Junior doctor shortage looming, warns Minister>

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