IRELAND'S acute hospitals have lost more nurses than administrative staff in the last year and a half as the crisis in the health system deepens.
As figures obtained by the Sunday Tribune underline ongoing fears for staffing, Britain's National Health Service (NHS) has been in Ireland recruiting "in their droves" Irish nurses who have qualified this month but who have no domestic prospects.
Since December 2008, staffing levels in Ireland's acute services alone have fallen by nearly 930 staff members across all sectors of employment.
Major hospitals in Dublin's north east region were the biggest losers with 350 staff positions unfilled in that period.
The Dublin mid Leinster region had 254, the southern region 166, and the west 161.
Nursing alone accounted for one quarter of all losses with a total of 226 positions lost in just 18 months.
By contrast, administrative, management and clerical staff lost 194 positions although proportionally there are more nursing positions than management making them more likely to go unfilled.
However, the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) said the real picture is much bleaker with nursing staff, including those in areas outside acute services, falling by 2,200 since December 2007.
"That is the number of posts – it may not be the number of people because there may have been part-time posts and so the headcount might be higher if two people make up one post," said Liam Doran, general secretary of the INMO.
He said that while conditions and workloads for nurses are now "intolerable" in acute hospitals, none of the 1,600 newly qualified staff coming out of universities will find work here.
"A very significant number of these are already being pencilled in to go to work in the NHS who have come over in their droves to recruit," he said.
"We have a brain drain of the highest order going on at the moment."
In 2009, only 10% of a year's nursing graduates were still in Ireland nine months after qualifying with their degrees.
Less nursing staff have disappeared from acute hospitals than other areas because those working there tend to be of a younger age profile than in other sectors. Many positions of retiring staff members are not replaced.