The Korea Herald


After SNUH strike ends, will other doctors follow suit?

SNU med professors' decision to end indefinite walkout could spill over to peers, observers say

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 23, 2024 - 14:48

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Medical workers walk in a hallway at a university hospital in Seoul on Sunday (Yonhap) Medical workers walk in a hallway at a university hospital in Seoul on Sunday (Yonhap)

Hopes are growing for an end to months of medical disruption in South Korea after medical professors at the nation's most prestigious hospital decided to end their indefinite walkout, a week after they went on strike to protest medical reforms.

The emergency committee of medical professors at Seoul National University, who were the first among doctors to walk out without a time limit last week, announced the withdrawal from its strike on Friday afternoon.

The group said doctors could not turn a blind eye to public pleas for them to return. The decision has increased hopes that their colleagues at the other "Big Five" hospitals will also back away from plans for indefinite walkouts.

The four other such hospitals are Severance Hospital, Samsung Medical Center, Asan Medical Center and the Catholic University of Korea Seoul St. Mary's Hospital.

As the operation of SNU hospitals, including outpatient treatment and regular surgeries, is set to resume normalcy this week, observers suggest this could discourage their peers from walking out of their jobs, not to mention the fracturing relationship with patients as well.

Holding a vote on whether to continue their collective action through next week, 698 out of 948 SNU professors voted in favor of halting the walkout and seeking a sustainable way of protesting against the government, according to Kang Hee-gyung, a medical professor specializing in pediatric kidney transplantation at SNUH who heads the committee.

The committee, however, said it would "continue to fight against the stubborn government," noting it will "take action again" if the government's irresponsible decisions cause greater threats to the people's right to health.

Immediately after the announcement, the Health Ministry said it "welcomes the decision," urging other doctors' groups to withdraw their intentions to go on indefinite strikes. The ministry added it is "ready to talk with the medical community at any time" to discuss medical issues together and listen to opinions.

At this juncture, all eyes are on the two hospitals that already announced strikes in mid-June to see if they will proceed with their plans. Both hospitals have remained silent on their stance since Seoul National University Hospital ended its strike, as of Sunday afternoon.

The emergency committee of professors at Yonsei University, who also work at Severance Hospital, is set to go on an indefinite strike starting Thursday. Their peers at Asan Medical Center, who are professors at the University of Ulsan, are to take a week off beginning July 4 and decide whether to extend depending on the government's changes to its medical policies.

Apart from professors at the three medical schools, the emergency committee of medical professors at Sungkyunkwan University, who double as senior doctors at Samsung Medical Center, will hold a meeting Tuesday afternoon to discuss the same issue.

Medical professors at the Catholic University of Korea failed to reach a conclusion during Thursday's general meeting on whether to walk out indefinitely. The group reportedly plans to take a "cautious approach" regarding the decision to strike and closely monitor the situation, according to reports citing health officials. The committee is to hold a general meeting on Tuesday.

Meanwhile, the Medical Professors Association of Korea said Sunday that it would seek to file a constitutional petition to recognize medical professors as workers.

Kim Chang-soo, a preventative medicine and public health professor at Yonsei University who heads the group of professors at 40 medical schools, made remarks in an interview with Medi Gate News saying that medical professors, who juggle their duties with those of being doctors in hospitals, work in hospitals without being regulated by labor standards or having formal employment contracts.