There has been a significant increase this year in the number of school leavers seeking to enter college via a reduced points scheme that caters for students with disabilities.

This year's CAO data shows an almost 14% rise in applicants to the DARE or disability access route.

DARE offers reduced points places to school leavers who, as a result of having a disability, have experienced additional educational challenges in second-level education.

Numbers applying have risen by 1,200 to 9,913 from 8,713 in the previous year.

The overall number of applications is very similar to last year’s at 78,025.

This means almost 13% of all CAO applications this year are applying through the DARE scheme.

Meanwhile, the number of students applying under the HEAR programme for students from disadvantaged backgrounds has fallen by almost 7% and now stands at almost 11% of all applications.

Preliminary data from the CAO also shows a significant drop in the number of students applying to study health-related courses.

Applications to Medicine are down by 11% and applications to Nursing and Midwifery courses have fallen by 10%.

This is not good news for a health sector already experiencing a significant labour shortage in both areas.

Earlier this year the Irish Medical Organisation warned of a "medical workforce shortage".

The chairman of the organisation’s Consultant Committee, Dr Matthew Sadlier, said it was an international phenomenon.

"We are competing against countries like Australia and Canada for doctors and frankly we are losing those competitions in being able to recruit doctors", he told RTÉ’s Drivetime in January.

Warning of a severe staffing crisis that was leaving hospitals unsafe the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation last month sanctioned a campaign of industrial action over the shortages.