Law may be changed to ease junior doctor crisis


THE MINISTER for Health is considering amending legislation to solve the junior doctor crisis, it has emerged.

The Irish Times understands Dr James Reilly was asked to consider an amendment to the 2007 Medical Practitioners Act when he met the HSE and the Department of Health on Friday to discuss the critical shortage of junior doctors.

If the shortages are not addressed, services at a number of hospitals, including the opening hours of emergency departments in Limerick, Portlaoise, Roscommon and several other locations, may have to be curtailed from next month.

Under that new Medical Practitioners Act, temporary registration of non-EU doctors was abolished, making it more cumbersome for these doctors to register to work in Ireland.

The HSE recently conducted a recruitment campaign in India and Pakistan and found more than 440 doctors who would be willing to come and fill vacant junior doctor posts.

However, at present these doctors would have to sit and pass a number of exams, including one in Ireland, before they could register to work here.

In requiring them to pass these exams, the Medical Council is upholding the law and protecting patient safety. However, it is argued that at least some of the doctors have years of experience and could be exempted from the exams if legislation was changed.

A spokesman for Dr Reilly said last night the Minister had meetings on Friday and more would follow in coming days to deal with the junior doctor shortages.

“A number of options are being looked at and if the chosen option requires legislative support, it will get legislative support,” he said.

Junior doctors rotate posts every six months as part of their training and, as things stand, many hospitals will be short of junior doctors when the next changeover takes place, on July 11th.

Only five of 32 emergency departments at this stage have been fully staffed for that date.

Dr Gareth Quin, a consultant in emergency medicine at Limerick’s Mid Western Regional Hospital, said yesterday that closing the emergency unit at his hospital at night time “is not really an option”.

He said the hospital had only 50 per cent of the junior doctors it required to operate a 24-hour emergency service from July 11th. He said the unit had recruited three registrars but this would only allow the emergency department to offer a safe service from 8am to 8pm. Six registrars are required to operate a 24-hour service.

Contingency plans drawn up by the hospital suggest one option might be to redeploy doctors from elsewhere in the hospital to work in the emergency department, but this was not ideal, he added.

The Limerick emergency department has been extremely busy since the opening hours of emergency departments at Ennis and Nenagh hospitals were curtailed in April 2009.

Diverting trauma cases to Galway or Cork was not really an option, Dr Quin said, given the risks involved, “but at the same time, if we do not have the doctors it’s more risky to bring people into a place that isn’t staffed”.

A spokesman for the HSE in the midwest said the public could be assured the issue was “receiving attention at the highest levels” and recruitment was ongoing.