Hospital chaos looms as junior doctors vote on strike action
HOSPITALS are facing major disruption as thousands of junior doctors prepare to vote on industrial action in protest at their working hours.
The Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) will announce today that its 2,000 junior doctor members will begin balloting for industrial action next month as part of the 'Enough is Enough' campaign.
The doctors by law should work no more than 48 hours a week, but many are clocking up more than 100.
And some are working shifts of up to 72 hours, with major implications for patient safety and the medics' own health.
Hospitals, particularly outside Dublin, are hugely reliant on around 4,900 junior doctors to maintain services, and any protest action would have a serious effect on patient care.
Action by the doctors, who will begin balloting early next month, could see them walking off the job after a certain number of hours.
They could also refuse to do tasks which they say can take up to 30pc of their time and are outside their training, such as taking blood samples, scans and administering intravenous drugs.
Due to the need for notice to be given of any action, it would take until early autumn before it would begin.
The last major ballot on industrial action was in 2009, but disruption was averted after the Labour Relations Commission intervened.
Strike action by junior doctors last occurred more than 20 years ago, and although there have been ballots since and protests at individual hospitals, the medics have not taken en masse to the picket lines.
The IMO has lost many junior doctor members in recent years because of disillusionment with its failure to win improvements in their working conditions.
A social media campaign on Twitter earlier this year gained publicity, but one of the main problems in organising large-scale protests is that junior doctors are difficult to mobilise.
This is because many are from abroad and cannot afford to jeopardise their income.
A spokesman for the IMO said it would embark on a "major campaign to force the Government to reduce the excessive hours".
He added: "The Government is in blatant breach of the European Working Time Directive and routinely forces young doctors to work longer hours than are tolerated in almost any other profession.
"This puts patient safety and the health and welfare of doctors at risk."
The HSE promised earlier this year that no junior doctor would have to work more than 68 hours in a week, and that by the beginning of June they would not have to do longer than a 24-hour continuous shift. This has yet to materialise.
Junior doctors last week began their latest six-month rotations in hospitals, but there were around 100 vacancies that could not be filled.
The HSE has said that while progress towards compliance has been made in some locations – including Galway University Hospital and St Vincent's University Hospital – the most significant challenges are in small- to medium-sized hospitals.
These include Portlaoise, Kerry General and Letterkenny, which have low numbers of doctors on rotas in surgery, anaesthetics, paediatrics and obstetrics, forcing them to work longer hours.
The HSE conceded that many doctors did not receive adequate daily rest, and many worked more than the average 48-hour week.
Hospitals that are short of junior doctors have to resort to agency staff to cover critical service gaps, but these are expensive and do not provide the continuity of care needed.
The core of the problem is that many of the young Irish doctors in training are choosing to go abroad rather than work here.