Editor's Viewpoint: Doctors' vacancies are crippling NHS
Staffing the NHS is not an exact science. At any time there will be vacancies in various disciplines for any number of reasons - lack of qualified doctors, unattractiveness of the positions, the size of the hospital - but there is obviously something amiss in Northern Ireland where 95 consultant posts are unfilled.
That is roughly one in 10 of these vital frontline positions. Worryingly, there is no immediate explanation for the scale of the problem.
A significant number of the vacancies are in accident and emergency departments, which is one discipline constantly in the news because of the strains on the service. There are already huge pressures on A-amp;E departments because of the rationalisation of services and the shortage of consultants can only hamper efforts to treat patients quickly and effectively. It matters little how quickly people get to hospital if there are not enough qualified doctors of suitable grades to treat the patients when they arrive.
One reason often given for difficulty in attracting consultants is that a hospital is too small to appeal to doctors or doesn't offer a wide enough range of disciplines. Yet some of our largest hospitals have posts unfilled. Are we not training enough doctors to meet the demands of modern medicine or are our doctors seeking professional fulfilment elsewhere? The result is that the Department of Health is now seeking locum doctors to plug the gaps. That is only a short-term - and expensive - option.
The strains on the NHS, locally and nationally, are well known, but it is a matter of concern that even the highest paid medical and surgical posts are not being filled. That creates pressure throughout the system, putting additional strains on those working long hours to treat patients.
Little wonder that some of them may consider that the pressure is too great and decide to leave the province. The biggest fear is that the level of care could suffer if the situation is not urgently addressed.