Concern for patient safety as medical scientists embark on campaign of industrial action

Union says its members carry out identical work as biochemists but are paid on average 8 per cent less

Further industrial action by medical scientists working in the health service will have serious consequences for patient safety, a senior HSE official has warned.

Liam Woods said the dispute involving the Medical Laboratory Scientists Association (MLSA) has to be resolved now as the health service cannot afford to allow a break in services for two days next week, when further strike days are planned.

Mr Woods said the impact of the first one-day stoppage on Wednesday had been “immediate and severe”, though some derogations from industrial action have been allowed for emergency work.

The HSE is engaging with the Workplace Relations Commission and would continue to engage in efforts to resolve the dispute, he told an Oireachtas committee on Wednesday.

Some 2,000 members of the MLSA at hospitals around the country took part in the first strike on Wednesday over pay and career development issues.

Up to 14,000 outpatient appointments were expected to be cancelled as a result of the protest, according to the HSE. All routine GP testing services were suspended for the day.

While lab services would resume as normal on Thursday, “a built up demand for tests is likely to result in delayed turnaround times for both hospital and GP requested tests” throughout Thursday and Friday.

Dozens of medical scientists outside the Mater Hospital in Dublin held placards saying: "Testing patience – 20 years of waiting. Medical scientists deserve equal pay."

Lost patience

Among them was Will Robertson, chief medical scientist in cellular pathology at the Mater.

“We have finally lost patience, having been the ‘heroes’ for two years, we now feel there were disingenuous talks over the last 12 months and enough is enough,” he said.

Mr Robertson has worked in the profession for 24 years, of which 12 were spent at the Mater. He said medical scientists who had completed a four-year honours degree course began their careers on “a lower pay point than a support staff member in the laboratory working alongside them, who only needs a Leaving Certificate qualification”.

“The graduates come out and wonder ‘Why am I doing this?’ and they just leave the profession. There has been a drain of highly qualified talent and it’s causing major issues,” he said, noting the Mater was currently running at a 20 per cent vacancy rate for medical scientists.

MLSA members voted to take industrial action last November with 98 per cent voting in favour.

The strike went ahead after industrial relations talks with employers failed to reach agreement earlier this year. Further industrial action is planned on two days next week and three days the following week.

Medical scientists are seeking pay parity with biochemists who also work in hospital labs. The MLSA says its members carry out identical work but are paid on average 8 per cent less.

Protesting outside Cork University Hospital, medical scientist Eileen Hurley said the profession had been “quiet for too long” and was facing a chronic recruitment crisis because of poor pay.

“If we don’t fight for this [pay parity] now we are not going to have experienced scientists in 10 years’ time. I am here to promote and protect my profession.”

Huge vacancies

Peter Chuk, also a medical scientist, said taking to the picket line at CUH was a “last resort”.

He too has concerns about the future of the profession in Ireland. "We have huge vacancies in the profession especially in Dublin where the house prices deter a lot of people. Because our degree itself has very high points a lot of graduates choose to continue to train as a medic or go into other industries which offer way more basic pay starting off.

“The pharmaceutical industry is crying out for people and people are jumping ship. The starting pay for medical scientists is very low.”

A spokeswoman for the HSE said there would be “wide scale disruption” to patients as a result of the strikes around the country.

“Emergency departments were already experiencing the knock-on effect of this action yesterday as GPs could not send routine lab tests to hospitals and instead had to refer patients directly to emergency departments,” she said.

“As this is a developing situation we would ask patients not to phone hospitals at this time. Hospitals will provide further clarity and details as soon as possible and information from all hospitals is available.”