Seanad debates

Friday, 12 February 2021

Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters

Health Services Staff

10:30 am

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State. The issue of public health doctors is an important one in our community, notwithstanding Senator Mullen's remarks. There have been numerous reports recommending a restructuring of the public health medicine scheme and specialists are awaiting consultant status. The Crowe Horwath report was the most recently commissioned and was published in January 2020. It was viewed as the roadmap by which progress could be made by the Department of Health towards parity of esteem and position for public health medicine specialists.

We all agree that a highly functioning health service must be underpinned by a strong investment in and commitment to public health. Our public health doctors are a pillar of that construction. They specialise in public health and, in many cases, have large swathes of the population as their patients. They investigate the health status of their patients using a bespoke health information system, evaluate the evidence for addressing poor health status, design the requisite improved services and evaluate the efficiency and effectiveness of those health services that are targeted at particular diseases in population groups. They are an important pillar of our public health model. A strong public health function has been identified as a key component of Sláintecare as an important enabler of the reorientation of the health service.

My Commencement matter is based on the talks that are taking place between public health doctors and the Department of Health. As a former Chairman of the then Joint Committee on Health and Children, I am aware of the work and role of our public health doctors. We all agree that we need a public health medical structure that is fit for purpose, especially in post-pandemic Ireland. Given that we are committed to the implementation and funding of Sláintecare, the tackling of health inequalities must begin with our public health doctors. The progress of the talks has been slow and I am concerned about what is happening there. We all recognise that if there is to be reform of our public health system, the new consultant position for public health doctors must be given parity with their colleagues. Many reports have been commissioned, all of which have recommended a restructuring of our public health system and the awarding of consultant status to public health medicine specialists.As I have said, the Crowe Horwath report and, now, the talks are the next stepping stones.

I ask for an update on the talks and I ask that the Government commits to the parity that public health doctors deserve. I thank the Minister of State for being here. I would like to add something to Senator Mullen's contribution. What he has said is quite correct. There is a need for all of us to be very vigilant and very supportive of what he has raised as part of his report. We saw in the summer and in the first wave the fatalities and illnesses. The vaccination programme should take cognisance of what Senator Mullen has said.

Photo of Mary ButlerMary Butler (Waterford, Fianna Fail)
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I will respond to this on behalf of the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly. I welcome the opportunity to address the House on this issue and I thank Senator Buttimer for raising it. I express my sincere gratitude to our public health doctors, who have been at the forefront of our response to the pandemic and have made an enormous contribution to the protection of everyone living in Ireland. The Government has already shown it is committed to investment in our public health workforce. The Minister has already committed to significant investment in public health, with the announcement of plans to double the current workforce by recruiting an additional 255 permanent staff at an annual cost of more than €17 million. This includes public health doctors, nurses, scientists and support staff. This is not only a response to the current pandemic but is an investment in the future development of our public health function. Recruitment for these posts is a priority for the HSE.

A significant body of work was already under way but the pandemic has certainly highlighted to us all that public health medicine must be reformed and strengthened such that the skills and expertise unique to public health physicians can be leveraged to ensure maximum return for the Irish health service and ultimately benefit and improve the health of the population as a whole.

The Minister has been very clear and consistent on his commitment to delivering on the recommendations that were made for public health in the Crowe Horwath report, to which the Senator referred. The report recognised the very important role that public health medicine plays in the health of our population and in how our health service is managed and delivered.

Officials from the Department, in conjunction with the HSE, have completed a substantial amount of work on a detailed framework for the future public health model, which includes consultant level roles. A process of engagement has begun between health service management and the Irish Medical Organisation. The Department of Health and the HSE met the Irish Medical Organisation on Wednesday, 27 January and on 3 February. The Department hopes this engagement will continue over the coming weeks. Engagement with the Irish Medical Organisation is ongoing and the Minister has stated it would not be appropriate for him to discuss the specific details at this time. Just so the Senator knows, they have met twice and the appropriate levels of communication are ongoing.

Photo of Jerry ButtimerJerry Buttimer (Fine Gael)
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My information is that the talks are at an impasse and the IMO has walked out. The Crowe Horwath report stipulated that the training of a cohort of specialists in public health medicine should be at a standard recognised internationally and equivalent to other medical specialties.

I appreciate the commitment of the Minister of State. Specialists in public health medicine and medical officers of health are responsible for the health of the population and we, as a Government and a Parliament, must afford them the same contracts as those of their colleagues in hospital consultant posts, who have the same level of qualification as they do, which enables them to have the requisite authority to do their job properly. We must empower and recognise them and give them status. We must also deliver the appropriate number of staff with a range of skills and competencies in multidisciplinary teams.

Yesterday, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, spoke about increasing the public sector pay bill. I hope the Minister of State will join, and I will work with her, to ensure we look after this group of people who are now so pivotal in a post-pandemic Ireland.This is about specialists in public health medicine in our communities.

Deputy Mary Butler:I thank the Senator again for raising this issue. As I have said already, engagement with the IMO is ongoing. I am not privy to the details but I am sure he will join me in saying that when one gets various groups around the table, communication is essential. That is the best way forward for any discussion. The only way that any solution can be found, regardless of whether it is in education, health or business, is to sit down and talk.

I reiterate that the introduction of the consultant-led public health model, as recommended in the Crowe Horwath report, is an immediate priority for the Department. Our public health specialists, as we all know, have been to the forefront of the response to the pandemic. They have given tirelessly in response to this very dangerous virus. We want to make sure we work closely with the public health doctors and put in place the best public health structures going forward. We want this to happen because we want to ensure public health medicine is an attractive career choice for anybody who is considering medicine as a career.

To conclude, it is very important that all sides get together and try to move forward because that is the only way that can happen.

Photo of Annie HoeyAnnie Hoey (Labour)
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I thank the Minister of State for her reply and for being here this morning through three Commencement matters. I thank Senator Buttimer for raising this very important issue, which we have discussed at the Joint Committee on Health.