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Irish-based public health specialists being ‘headhunted’ as path to consultant status blocked

The continuing failure by Government to introduce better pay and conditions for public health specialists could result in doctors leaving the profession to take early retirement or work elsewhere, a leading public health specialist has warned.

Dr Ina Kelly, Chair of the IMO public health committee, told the Medical Independent (MI) that some public health specialists are being headhunted to take up work in other countries. “We can apply for jobs in the UK at the moment and work from home,” said Dr Kelly. 

She added that specialists a few years away from retirement could decide to stop work early. 

“They may say I’ve had enough of being treated badly,” she advised.

“The only thing that is holding people back from looking at alternatives is that there may be a consultant contract by Christmas. If there isn’t one by Christmas, I’d say it’s all over for a lot of people, and that’s a health security risk for the State. That’s not from the IMO’s point of view, that’s from listening to people.”

At a recent meeting between the IMO and health officials, the Organisation announced that the Department of Expenditure and Reform (DPER) was blocking the path of public health specialists being recognised as consultants by withholding approval for revised terms of the new consultant contract and stalling progress on the required legislative change.
A public health specialist, who did not wish to be named, told this newspaper that following the meeting, doctors working in public health felt “betrayed” and that morale was now at “rock bottom”. 

“Several colleagues have expressed the intent to look for other jobs, it’s worrying,” said the doctor. 

There are approximately 60 public health specialist in Ireland. In 2019, the HSE predicted, assuming a retirement age of 62 years, that 23 specialists would retire between 2019 and 2023. 

These retirements, coupled with the possibility some specialists may leave early and/or take up roles elsewhere, would be a huge blow to the State at a time when the service urgently requires more and not fewer experts in the area.

“The only thing keeping them here is because this is about their family and country, but at a certain point you have to stop the martyrdom,” warned Dr Kelly. 

“We are looking for equality because you cannot operate effectively when you’re treated unequally. And we know we cannot fight for our population of patients’ needs when we are not treated equally.”

Following the meeting with health officials, Dr Kelly said doctors were “furious”. 

“People feel that if you cannot get a consultant contract at this time, we know we will never get it,” she told MI.

“This is crunch time. [Covid-19] is a challenge of an unprecedented, overwhelming nature to the people of this country, including public health teams, which are completely under-resourced to deal with it. It is only the clinical leadership and expertise of our profession that are keeping the wheels turning. However, every day we have to go to work and we are treated as inferior doctors. It’s a smack in the face when you’re expected to work to the top of your licence.”

Recently, public health doctors from the IMO agreed to delay a decision on strike action for two months given the ongoing public health crisis linked to Covid-19.

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