THOUSANDS of patient operations were cancelled last year as hospitals struggled to cope with industrial action and gridlock in the system.
Up to 18,000 operations were withdrawn from lists in hospitals across the country, marking a 10pc increase on 2008.
The total amount of procedures cancelled over the past three years has now risen to almost 50,000, according to Fine Gael health spokesman Dr James Reilly.
Dr Reilly said that the cancellations were having a "real impact" on patients, prolonging their pain and potentially delaying investigations into serious illnesses.
"It is not unheard of for patients whose procedures have been postponed to end up in A&E," he said.
"Cancelling operations has become ingrained as a policy for managing hospital gridlock brought about by overcrowded emergency departments; a lack of acute beds for admission and the delayed discharge of patients in acute beds who need to move to more appropriate care but have no place to go."
Dr Reilly added that the figures were a clear indication that hospitals in Ireland were trying to operate in a health system that was "broken".
"The 50,000 operations cancelled and the increasing levels of cancellations are an indictment of the Health Minister's failures," he said.
"She has made no serious attempt to tackle the A&E crisis, despite a lot of big talk about it."
St James's Hospital in Dublin had the biggest number of cancelled operations, rising to 5,576.
Other hospitals in the capital fared poorly in the survey with Beaumont Hospital listing 2,200 cancellations while Tallaght Hospital had 1,928 and the Mater Hospital had 1,809.
However, a spokesperson for the HSE said that the figures needed to be viewed in the context of the growing activity within the hospitals.
A total of 50 public acute hospitals provided 1,262,000 elective procedures in day and in-patient cases last year so the cancellations accounted for 1.4pc of the total, which was just a slight increase on 1.2pc in 2007.
"We provided in-patient treatment to 593,359 people, and we provided 669,955 day-case treatments," they added.
"As our level of activity has grown each year since 2005, it is to be expected that the level of cancellations would increase in parallel."
And the HSE pointed out that cancellations can be made by the hospital or by the patient.
"When the former is the case, is usually the result of unavoidable circumstances like level of emergency admissions and activity, infection control and general availability of beds or staff for the duration of the admission or procedure," the representative said.