THOUSANDS of patients whose operations and clinic appointments are cancelled tomorrow due to the junior doctors' strike could wait weeks before getting a new hospital date.
The Health Service Executive (HSE) said the strike action by junior doctors over their long working hours would inevitably lead to thousands of cancellations as the medics take to the picket line.
The HSE's head of human resources, Barry O'Brien, said it could take several weeks before the patient gets a new appointment because hospitals are so overstretched.
He was speaking as the junior doctors, who are members of the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO), resolved to go ahead with the action from midnight tonight, reducing cover to their normal weekend roster levels with one extra medic on duty.
The IMO's industrial relations officer, Eric Young, said doctors in the union were resigned to having to take industrial action because of the failure of the HSE to "step up to the plate" in respect of the issue of sanctions.
There are around 4,900 junior doctors employed in public hospitals and the IMO represents around 2,000. It is unclear how many doctors will not turn up for work.
The doctors want an end of shifts of more than 24 hours and the introduction of a 48-hour week.
The HSE said most hospitals would be able to end the shifts of more than 24 hours by November and the rest would be in line by January.
Mr Young said it was wrong for the HSE to claim that there is little between the parties and insisted the HSE has failed to come up with a workable proposal to sanction hospitals breaching the shift limits.
"This strike is about protecting doctors and patients," he insisted.
Meanwhile, the IMO is under fire from its own members because of a decision to postpone a promised external inquiry into its finances stretching back to the 1980s, including an examination of how its former chief executive George McNeice (53) received a retirement package of €25m.
A spokesman said it was decided to defer the probe because it could cost €500,000. The union is facing High Court fees of around €1m for a competition challenge and other bills.
However, Dublin GP Dr Cathal O Suilleabhain said they were promised a full investigation.
"It brings to mind the calls for a banking enquiry. We all have a fairly good idea of what happened but we also know no one will be held accountable," he added.