Difficulties in recruiting and retaining nurses are at crisis levels with over 1,500 vacancies, a conference has heard.

The problem is most acute in the specialised elderly care sector and experts said retaining staff in areas where there are high stress levels, due to shortages, is a major issue.

Managing Director of PCQ Nurse Recruitment Paul Chandler said that the situation around the country was bleak and in the elderly sector alone, there were around 1,000 nursing vacancies.

The Health Service Executive has recruited around 500 more nurses since the start of the year and a new recruitment campaign started recently.

Mr Chandler told the Nurse Retention Crisis National Conference in Dublin that because of the shortage, some employers were making recruitment decisions based on desperation.

He said the recruitment and retention problem was not unique to Ireland.

Many graduates here have left for jobs in the UK, Canada and America and Ireland has been forced to recruit staff from abroad.

The HSE said it launched a new recruitment campaign in July to attract around 500 more nurses and midwives working in the UK and elsewhere.

It said that so far, 339 applications have been received and 56 have accepted contracts of employment.

Today's conference heard that there is an oversupply of nurses in Romania and Italy.

Irish pay rates are now viewed as more competitive, on average about €18 an hour but the UK sterling currency strength is an issue in terms of pay rates there.

Experts say that new staff can face a very stressful environment with long hours, due to staff shortages and this poses problems in their retention.

Alex Soare from Romania told RTÉ News he had been working as a nurse in elderly care here but gave up the job after six months.

He said the hours were long and he found it difficult to get holidays, or time off, to see his family.

Around 750 agency nurses are used each week in Ireland to fill critical gaps in the service.

Some private hospitals are also offering special incentives to recruit and retain staff.

A new report from the OECD shows that one-in-five Irish emigrants leave from the health and social work sectors.

The Department of Health has said there are significant delays at the Nursing & Midwifery Board of Ireland level in registering nurses.

It says that 70% of outstanding applications have submitted incomplete documentation.

A new helpline is being set up to assist nurses in making complete applications.