Patients suffering from a psychiatric emergency are being seen by doctors who have no training in mental health, psychiatrists warned yesterday.
A lack of full-time psychiatrists and trainees is leaving patients who may be suicidal in the care of locum doctors, who are hired to cover night-time emergency on-call services in a growing number of hospitals.
The crisis has been highlighted by doctors in recent months to the HSE and hospital managers amid growing fears for patient care.
Prof Patricia Casey of the Mater Hospital in Dublin said she was seriously concerned that the national shortage of junior doctors in psychiatry would affect patient safety.
"We are heavily dependent on locums. Some are very good and some have little or no experience. They are coming on call in a strange hospital for a night-time roster without any knowledge of the local system or the ancillary services available.
"It has the potential to seriously compromise patient care," she warned.
A failure to attract applicants for full-time psychiatrists' posts and a reduction in places for trainees are among the reasons for the difficulties on providing proper standards of cover.
In the Mater Hospital in Dublin, the departure of a number of doctors led to the suspension of some services. The psychiatric service to the hospital emergency department from 9am-5pm had to be temporarily shelved, along with new outpatient clinics.
Five psychiatrists in the hospital now have to maintain round the clock cover. Most are up during the night and also have to work the following day.
The doctors said letters and emails have been sent to the HSE. But they were not answered or "else we are told the problem is not theirs".
It comes as nurses in the psychiatric unit of University Hospital Galway began limited industrial action yesterday. The Psychiatric Nurses Association said there had been 36 assaults on staff this year.
In response, the HSE said it had had problems filling full-time posts for psychiatrists. Efforts were under way to give more certainty to trainees in order to persuade them stay here.
It was also trying to recruit nurses overseas for mental health services.
The Children's Mental Health Coalition also expressed serious concern at the reports that Waterford's child and adolescent mental health services unable to accept new referrals. This is due to a failure to recruit psychiatrists.
"We are formally telling you now that our conditions of work are unsustainable and unsafe for staff and patients…."
"By the end of the month there will be five nursing vacancies out of a total of 17. In our view this will lead to an unsafe situation."
"The deficits in staffing negatively affect service provision, increase risk and are likely to contribute to future adverse events. The deficits in staffing compromise our ability to deliver an effective and safe service."