Not alone are many of the country’s hospitals up in a heap, but the Defence Forces’ medical corps is also desperately seeking doctors.

Waterford Labour Party TD Brian O’Shea took the matter up with Defence Minister Willie O’Dea in the Dáil last week, asking what progress had been made to improve staffing levels in the current year.

The Minister said military medical services to maintain our forces’ health and support them in operational and overseas activities has suffered from a key shortage of doctors, with civilian medical practitioners used to provide back-up.

“The difficulties with the recruitment of medical officers have endured for some time despite the concerted efforts of my Department and the Defence Forces. The numbers attracted to work in the Defence Forces have served only to address natural wastage,” Mr O’Dea said.

Despite the pay and allowances of doctors and dentists being increased substantially in consultation with the Minister for Finance to try and attract the relevant personnel, along with a major recruitment drive, the response has been “disappointing”, he acknowledged.

A review of medical services provision “is ongoing as part of the modernisation agenda for the Defence Forces”, with PA Consulting due to delivered their report before the end of the year.

“I am committed to providing a sustainable medical service to meet the needs of the Defence Forces both at home and abroad. Notwithstanding the current position, I assure the House that Defence Forces personnel requiring medical treatment receive the care they need,” the Minister said.

However, Deputy O’Shea observed that “When the medical corps has been described as being in a state of virtual collapse, the Minister’s last statement requires examination. Essentially, does he not agree, given that 15 doctors have left the medical corps since 2000 and only ten have been recruited, that this represents a very poor situation?

Seeking a commitment that there be “no restriction in terms of resources in 2009”, the Tramore TD said he’s suggested to the Minister on a number of occasions “that student doctors should be given financial assistance on the quid pro quo that they give a certain designated amount of service to the Army or the Defence Forces generally after they have graduated.”

Mr O’Dea conceded: “It is true that more people have left since 2000 than we have managed to recruit. However, it is not true to say that the medical service is in a state of collapse because, as Deputy O’Shea and the House will be aware, where we cannot provide medical service within the Army, we engage outside medical services.”

He continued: “We have done our best to maintain the strength of the medical corps at its establishment level, which is 47 doctors, but unfortunately we have failed. We raised the pay and allowances considerably and undertook a number of intensive recruitment campaigns, but we failed.”

That said, “Deputy O’Shea’s suggestion about student doctors is a good one and the consultants have been made aware of it. We will see what they have to say about it in their report.”

Encouraged by this, the Waterford Deputy wondered “Is there merit in representatives of the Defence Forces at senior level, or indeed senior officials of the Minister’s Department, addressing students in the medical schools with a view to directing their attention towards the Army as a career? It is a fine career and appeals to patriotism as well as professionalism.”

Minister O’Dea said: “There may be merit in that… Other useful suggestions will be taken on board too and I will bear that one in mind.”