JUNIOR doctors who often have to work up to 100 hours a week are set to walk off their wards in protest at gruelling shifts they say are putting patients at risk.
The action will see the cancellation of clinics and operations, as well as major delays across the hospital system which relies on junior doctors to maintain services, but the over-worked trainees say the matter of shifts of up to 36 hours in length are bringing serious risk to their own and patients' health
Under EU law, trainee doctors should not be working more than 48 hours a week, but many are having to endure working between 70 and 100 hours.
The result of a ballot of more than 2,300 junior doctors, who have been voting in recent weeks, will be known today and are expected to show overwhelming support for strike action.
A strike committee from the Irish Medical Organisation (IMO) is due to meet tomorrow to draw up a plan of action which will give the HSE two weeks notice of industrial action.
The doctors want an immediate end to shifts of more than 24 hours, and agreement for a planned move to comply with the 48-hour week by the end of 2014.
There are 4,900 junior doctors working in hospitals – and there will be pressure on those who are not in the union not to pass the pickets.
Health Minister Dr James Reilly has said it is not safe to have junior doctors making "life-or-death decisions" after working continuously for 24 or 36 hours.
"I certainly wouldn't, as a young father, want to see my young child under the care of a doctor that was exhausted, making these very difficult decisions. We don't let truck drivers do it. We shouldn't ask non-consultant hospital doctors to do it," he explained.
Dr Reilly has set up a group consisting of junior doctors, interns, registrars and others to see what kind of alternative system can be put in place to provide junior doctors with a clearer career path and greater work-life balance.
It's report is due to be finished by the end of this month or early October and the minister has promised that his working group will finally tackle the 20-year-old problem.
However, Dr John Donnellan, chairman of the junior doctor committee in the IMO, said that a meeting with the HSE last Thursday again failed to make any progress and doctors were now resigned to taking strike action.
"The meeting was a failure because of the unwillingness of the HSE to make any proposals to address the concerns of doctors.
"It would be one thing if the HSE made proposals with which we disagreed. However, the fact that they didn't have any proposals to make at all shows the contempt with which they treat us.
"We now have no choice but to escalate our campaign to include industrial action in Irish hospitals and we will make arrangements this week to do exactly that," he said.
Dr Reilly added that the lack of a proper career path was driving junior doctors out of the country.
"They are the brightest and the best and then to treat them in a fashion that makes it very difficult for them to get a car loan – because they only get a six-month contract – and can't have any certainty into their mid-20s when many of them are forming partnerships, having families, it's utterly unacceptable," he said.