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Health care sector in turmoil as doctors threaten strike

The longest-ever railway workers’ walkout ended early this week, but the nation is likely to face another major disruption in its medical sector as doctors are threatening to stage strikes protesting the government’s latest plans to overhaul medical services.

The Korea Medical Association, a lobby group of physicians, said last week that it would finalize a walkout plan on Jan. 11, saying it would not “tolerate” the government’s plan to allow telemedicine and for-profit hospital subsidiaries.

A senior KMA member said Wednesday that the group would likely launch a nationwide walkout this month. But the group will decide later on whether to stage an all-out strike after observing the public sentiment, noting that the recent train workers’ walkout was not as welcomed by the public as past strikes.

“We are going to stage a partial walkout as of now, asking doctors to participate in sit-in protests either in the morning or in the afternoon,” a KMA official said, indicating that the group is aware that their action would put patients at risk. But the group will take collective action, using it as a “bargaining chip” in talks with the government. About 70 percent of its members have agreed to stage the walkout, he added.

The KMA is one of the major groups of doctors who are concerned that the government’s recent plan could pave the way for the privatization of medical services and hurt their business.

Late last year, the Ministry of Health and Welfare released a final plan to start telemedicine in 2015. “Telemedicine” refers to the use of information technologies for the delivery of clinical care. Related ministries also announced a joint plan to allow hospitals to establish subsidiaries to engage in incidental businesses, mergers and acquisitions among medical institutions, and to lift the cap on the number of foreign patients.

Doctors fear that the new measures would lower the quality of medical services and jeopardize the operation of local clinics and regional hospitals. The introduction of telemedicine alone will cut at least 50,000 jobs, they added.

The plan, allowing hospitals to set up profit-seeking subsidiaries, is a step to “commercialize the nation’s medical sector,” said another KMA member who requested anonymity. “The (for-profit) subsidiary plan would eventually allow the hospitals to seek profits. It would cause the nation’s health insurance system to collapse and lead to a dramatic increase in hospital fees,” he said.

Rumors have been spreading fast online that patients could end up paying as much as 10 times more than what they are paying now for simple medical operations, such as an appendectomy.

The government and the ruling Saenuri Party seem at a loss as doctors threaten to take action over the plans.

Not only Health Minister Moon Hyung-pyo but also Choi Won-young, senior presidential secretary for employment and welfare affairs, said the introduction of telemedicine services is meant to help people without access to medical services, not to privatize the sector.

The Health Ministry, in consultation with the Saenuri Party, decided to ban the operation of medical institutions specializing in telemedicine services. In its revised plan, the government will also have patients receiving telemedicine services visit clinics regularly.

Officials have repeatedly said that they have no plan to allow the establishment of for-profit hospitals, in an apparent attempt to conciliate the angry doctors.

Officials say that the plan was designed to draw local and foreign investment to the medical sector so that hospitals could become financially independent to the extent that they could make investments for the development of medical science.

The plan is also aimed at promoting medical tourism, citing successful cases in Singapore and Thailand.

Some observers say that the doctors will not gain public support if they take collective action. “Their actions are widely being seen as an attempt to secure their own profits and for their own good. They would generate distrust against doctors if they put patients’ lives at risks in pursuit of their own good,” said a member of a civic group who asked to remain anonymous.

By Cho Chung-un (