Casualty doctor shortage 'puts patient safety at risk'
A shortage of doctors is putting safety standards at risk in many hospital emergency departments.
A survey of medical staff in 31 hospitals providing 24-hour emergency facilities found that just 13 have enough doctors.
It comes as hospital staff are bracing themselves for the annual rise in patients suffering respiratory and flu symptoms as the weather deteriorates.
The survey by the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine (IAEM), which represents senior A&E doctors, revealed that 140 out of 161 registrar posts across the State are filled.
And there is a similar crisis in recruiting senior house officers where 177 out of 200 posts are filled.
IAEM spokesman Dr James Binchy warned the knock-on effect was that patients were facing longer delays and there was a fall in the quality of care they receive.
The worst-hit hospital is Our Lady of Lourdes in Navan, which has an 80pc vacancy rate, followed by Kerry General Hospital which is 66pc short of the required number of junior doctors in its emergency department.
Other hospitals struggling to provide a full service include Portlaoise Hospital, Letterkenny General, Limerick Regional, Mercy Hospital Cork, Mayo General and Sligo General.
Also under pressure are Wexford General Hospital, Mullingar Hospital, Cork University Hospital and Portiuncula Hospital in Ballinasloe.
Other hospitals which are less affected but are also down on essential medical staff include Cavan General Hospital, South Tipperary General Hospital, Clonmel, Waterford Regional Hospital, Tullamore Hospital, the Mater Hospital and Galway University Hospital.
Dr Binchy said the shortage of senior consultants -- with only 58 spread throughout 31 hospitals -- had left emergency departments overly dependent on junior doctors, particularly those in the lower grades.
"The current shortages mean that either certain shifts are left uncovered or departments are reliant on locum doctors," he explained.
"Such short-term locums are unlikely to be able to provide the same standard of care as doctors in substantive posts who have been provided with appropriate induction and ongoing training integration into the emergency department team."
And Dr Binchy warned that there was a fear that the doctor shortage would worsen further next January when trainee medics did their next six-monthly changeover of hospitals.
"Those who are currently recruiting have noted a significant fall-off in the number of applicants for posts, even to those hospitals which have not traditionally experienced recruitment difficulties".
Dr Binchy said the problem needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency and it was essential to end the reliance on junior doctors to make up the most part of medical staffing in emergency departments.
"The solution is the appointment of permanent, fully trained doctors. This will require significant consultant expansion and the development of a new grade of doctor, the associate emergency physician."
The HSE has insisted that it had been making efforts to fill the posts through various measures, including a recruitment campaign abroad and changes in visa arrangements.