By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith, Killarney
Irish Examiner
April 13, 2012

A minister for public health should be appointed in light of startling new figures showing the hidden impact of Ireland’s unequal society on the health of the poor.

New Irish Medical Organisation president, Dr Paul McKeown, made the call after a litany of life-shortening problems affecting the poorest people in society were revealed by expert speakers.

They included Owen Metcalfe, director of the Institute of Public Health in Ireland, who said statistics repeatedly show our poorest men will die four years earlier than our richest, and poor women two years earlier than their wealthier counterparts.

Speaking at the first day of the IMO’s three-day annual general meeting in Killarney, Co Kerry, Mr Metcalfe said the worst-off in Irish society are twice as likely to develop stroke and heart disease compared to the most financially comfortable.

Quoting Canada’s chief medical officer, he added that the only way to ensure a healthy life is “be wealthy and don’t be poor.”

Responding to the situation, Dr McKeown, a consultant in public medicine, urged Government to appoint a minister for public health tasked specifically with addressing the wealth-biased inequality.

He said the potential move — which comes just a week after it was revealed one in every six Irish people are living in poverty — should also include “an inter-sectoral committee to prioritise evidence-based initiatives” tackling health inequality in Ireland.

Meanwhile, the outgoing president of the IMO, Cork-based GP Dr Ronan Boland, has hit out at the slow pace of health service reform, telling delegates he has seen no real change in the past 12 months.

“I reasonably anticipated that all hands would be required on deck to ensure that the voice and input of Ireland’s highly trained and experienced doctors would be adequately heard during the engagements with the State.

“However, little has changed during the year. More patients, more procedures, fewer beds, fewer staff and fewer resources. If radical reform is at hand, it feels little closer than it did a year ago today… A country on the brink of insolvency is not in the best position to fund dramatically improved access to more and speedier health care, irrespective of who is writing the cheque,” he said, adding that he did not believe Government plans to introduce universal health insurance in 2016 will be met.

* Irish medical groups must stand up to foreign governments which discriminate against, torture or imprison doctors treating people in civil conflicts like the Arab Spring — regardless of financially lucrative business connections, the conference heard yesterday.

Dr Asam Ishtiaq urged his colleagues to “stand up for what is right” in light of the imprisonment and alleged torture of Irish-trained doctors who treated rebel fighters in the Bahrain uprising. The Pakistani-born surgeon, who works at the Whitfield Clinic in Co Waterford, said Ireland cannot ignore the plight of physicians who have strong links to Ireland.

AGM agenda

Among the motions discussed on the first day of the IMO’s AGM were calls to make Irish hospitals reduce their energy consumption, support for sexual health initiatives in the developing world, and the reality of budget cuts on the service.

Calls for hospital research ethical groups to be subjected to new Health Information and Quality Authority safety rules, banning hospital staff from smoking in their uniforms, a similar call for parents to stop lighting up in playgrounds, and an alcohol levy to be used to pay for alcohol-related medical issues were also discussed.

In addition, doctors put forward plans to test all drivers involved in car accidents — whether they are conscious or not – to confirm if they are within the alcohol limit, and moves to develop 24/7 hospital suicide teams.