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S. Korean hospitals under strain as doctors' strike widens

By YANG HAN in Hong Kong | China Daily Global | Updated: 2024-02-22 09:15

South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo (center) arrives for a meeting with doctors at the National Police Hospital in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. HWANG GANG-MO/AP

More trainee doctors in South Korea have joined protests against a government plan to increase medical student enrollment, as authorities warned protesters of the consequences and adverse impact on the healthcare system.

A total of 8,816 trainee doctors, or 71.2 percent of junior doctors, have submitted their resignations and 7,813 walked off their jobs, Park Minsoo, second vice-minister at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said at a news conference on Wednesday.

Officials said they want to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 nationwide from next year to brace for South Korea's rapidly aging population. But doctors' groups have refuted the plan, saying universities are not ready to offer quality education to that many students. They argue that the government's push to have more doctors would lead to increased public medical expenses because physicians locked in competition could perform unnecessary treatments.

In a poll conducted by Gallup Korea, about 76 percent of South Koreans support the government's plan. Some critics said doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, oppose a steep increase in admissions because of worries that they may lose income.

Noting that the government has issued back-to-work orders to more than 6,000 trainee doctors, Park said failing to comply with the order could result in serious punishment, including up to three years in prison, 30 million won ($22,480) fines, or even revocation of their licenses.

"The trainee doctors' right to take collective action cannot have precedence over people's basic right to life," Park said.

South Korea's general hospitals rely heavily on trainees for emergency operations and surgeries, and local reports said cancer patients and expectant mothers needing cesarean sections have seen procedures canceled or delayed, with scores of cases causing "damage", Park said.


Trainee doctors said the government's return-to-work order was intimidation and must be withdrawn immediately. The Korea Medical Association, which represents 140,000 doctors, said it supports the trainee doctors' walkouts but has not decided whether to join them.

Joo Soo-ho, a spokesman for a KMA task force, accused the government of "demonizing doctors".

"We strongly condemn the government for holding the people hostage and suppressing doctors," he told reporters.

To deal with the trainee doctors' walkouts, the government has opened military hospitals to the public, extended operating hours of public medical institutions, and emergency medical treatment centers stay open round the clock. But observers said if the walkouts are prolonged or joined by senior doctors, that could cause major disruptions in South Korea's overall medical services.

Hong Jae-ryun, a brain cancer patient in his 50s from Daegu, said his chemotherapy had been postponed indefinitely due to the current situation, even though the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver.

"It's absurd. Amid the conflict between the government and doctors, what can powerless patients say? It feels like a betrayal," Hong told Agence France-Presse.

Those aged 70 and older outnumbered those in their 20s for the first time last year, according to data from South Korea's Ministry of the Interior and Safety.

Agencies contributed to this story.

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