There have been nearly 3,500 serious assaults on staff in the health service over the last six years it has emerged.
About two-thirds of those assaulted were nurses and midwives in the general health service, as distinct from the mental health services, the biennial conference of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (Ictu) was told on Wednesday.
The general secretary-designate of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) Phil Ní Sheaghdha attributed the scale of assaults to poor workforce planning by health service management and the absence of staff training.
She was also highly critical of the level of use of agency staff to operate services rather than directly-employed personnel.
Ms Ní Sheaghdha told the conference in Belfast the HSE spent €77 million on agency staff in the first 18 weeks of this year.
The outgoing INMO general secretary Liam Doran said the health service in the Republic was “utterly dysfunctional ”.
Anthony Owens of the Irish Medical Organisation said Ireland had one of the lowest ratios of doctors compared with similar countries.
He said Ireland had 2.8 doctors per 100,000 population while the figure on average for the rest of the EU was 3.4 per 100,000.
He said the consequence of this inability to match the medical workforce to clinical need was long waiting lists and emergency department overcrowding.
Mr Owens warned that while the present situation was “grim”, the omens for the future were frightening.
Unite trade union delegate Marie Casey argued that healthcare in the Republic required “‘radical surgery rather than a band-aid”.
“The Republic’s health system is in crisis. According to the latest figures, 672,000 people are on a hospital waiting list, with over 85,000 waiting for inpatient care and over 478,000 waiting to be seen at an outpatient clinic. And that does not include those waiting for a gastrointestinal check, or awaiting indicative dates for an annual check,” she said.
“Access to healthcare is often determined by the cash in your wallet rather than your medical need, healthcare professionals are under increasing pressure – and people are literally dying for a solution to our healthcare crisis.
“Meanwhile, successive governments apply band-aids to the problem, the two-tier system remains firmly in place, and the Government has declined to engage meaningfully with the report produced by the Committee on the Future of Healthcare.”
“We don’t need band-aids. We need radical surgery resulting in a universal, single-tier health system funded – as Unite has previously argued – social insurance and accessible to all on the basis of need,” Ms Casey said.