The Department of Health said it is awaiting the outcome of a test case, being taken by a consultant against the State, for its alleged failure to pay increases due since June 2009, due to the economic downturn.

The department says the disputed amount could be up to €40,000 a year for each consultant, since June 2009.

The news came as a new survey of hospital consultants by the Irish Medical Organisation revealed that 27% are thinking of leaving the public health system.

According to the unpublished details of the survey, 33% of consultants who may leave are under the age of 49.

Consultant leader of the IMO Dr Trevor Duffy told RTÉ News that it is becoming harder to attract consultants to jobs.

Dr Duffy said doctors who apply for posts are not turning up for interviews and others are turning down job offers.

He said there were signs that younger consultants were also leaving posts.

Consultants say the biggest effects of cutbacks are being seen in bed and ward closures, theatre closures and staff shortages, due to the recruitment embargo and non-replacement of staff who retire.

Of the 407 consultants that responded to the survey, 93% said health cuts will adversely affect patients and fewer patients will be treated this year.

There are 2,400 consultants in the hospital system.

In line with other public servants, consultants have faced significant pay cuts in recent years and new limits have been imposed on those who wish to do private work.

The Government wants to negotiate a new contract with consultants and plans further cuts in their fees.

On average consultants earn a basic salary of around €160,000 a year in their public work.