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‘Warm words’ but ‘no progress’ for occupational medicine specialists

The IMO is concerned that “despite warm words from the HSE” no progress has been made on consultant status for occupational medicine specialists.

Specialists in occupational medicine are outliers in the healthcare system in that their higher specialist training and specialist registration with the Medical Council are not recognised with a consultant contract. Public health doctors recently secured an agreement that will see them recognised as consultants, after what the IMO described as a 20-year campaign.

“The Covid pandemic, and the high incidence of infection among healthcare workers, has shown the importance to the health service of a fully supported, consultant-led occupational medicine service,” a spokesperson for the IMO told the Medical Independent.

“Despite the very clear, real-world evidence provided by the pandemic, progress on this issue has apparently stalled somewhere between the HSE and the Department of Health. It is also a matter of great concern that we have not yet had it confirmed by the employer that this issue will be encompassed in the engagement on the draft Sláintecare consultant contract, or through any other mechanism, despite previous indications that this would be the case.”

A Department of Health spokesperson stated: “The question of consultant status for occupational health physicians is under consideration. The HSE have submitted a business case and the Department will be engaging with the HSE on it.  Meetings have been delayed due to the current circumstances.”

The issue is a significant barrier to recruitment and retention of occupational health physicians (OHPs) in the public health service. 

Asked how many occupational health physicians were appointed and in post under the winter plan finding, a HSE spokesperson said: “Currently the HSE is working to fill 10 positions with progress ongoing.”

They said that all appointments will be specialist registered.  In regard to consultant status, the spokesperson said the HSE has “submitted a full and comprehensive business case in this regard to the Department of Health”.

Meanwhile, the then Dean of the RCPI Faculty of Occupational Medicine, Dr Lynda Sisson, expressed concern about manpower deficits in correspondence to the Medical Council last year: “What has been apparent to the Faculty is the sheer lack of numbers of OH [occupational health] specialists and the challenges in running an occupational health service in the country.

“There are nine OHP in the HSE and an additional four full-time physicians in the voluntary health sector, providing a 24/7 service during the pandemic.”

The letter, which was obtained from the Council under Freedom of Information law, was part of a wider communication on the pandemic’s effects on postgraduate training.

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