Eight jobs advertised for hospital consultants - with starting salaries of at least €127,000 - did not even attract one applicant last year, it emerged yesterday.

The posts for specialists such as cardiologists, obstetricians or opthalmologists, which were once hotly contested, are now being snubbed.

Many remain unfilled at a time when the health service is struggling and overstretched.

It meant an estimated one-in-four advertised posts for around 84 hospital consultants is vacant.

More hospitals are relying on locums to provide temporary medical cover.

The extent of the shortfall in key health workers, including nurses, is being discussed in Dublin this week at the Fourth Global Forum on Human Resources for Health.

The crisis, which is also being felt by many other countries, due to various factors including pay, will see a global shortage of up to 18 million health workers by 2030, the conference was told.

Doctors unions in this country blame cuts in salaries and adverse working conditions in the public hospital system for forcing so many home-grown medics to opt for work abroad.

Opening the conference, attended by 1,000 delegates, Health Minister Simon Harris said: "No one country or organisation can build the health workforce of the future.

"That is why the global forum is so important."

Research by the Royal College of Surgeons found that over 2016-2017 some 54pc of final-year medicine students in Ireland intend to leave after doing their year of internship following graduation, with 9pc saying they will not come back.

Several countries, such as Australia and the United States, are proving to have an irresistible pull for doctors from Ireland and other parts of Europe.

It means that hospitals such as Portlaoise Hospital, which faces the threat of downgrading in the coming years, is finding it increasingly difficult to get full-time consultants.

It is heavily reliant on locum doctors and there are currently five of these medics working across its departments, including surgery and the A&E.

At the end of September, there was a net increase of just 13 nurses in the health service compared to December.

The HSE is offering all nursing graduates full-time roles but they are competing with hospitals in the UK, in particular.