The Korea Herald


Hospitals experience disruptions on extended doctors' walkout

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 24, 2024 - 16:46

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A patient is transported to the emergency room in Seoul on Saturday amid a walkout by trainee doctors protesting the government's plan to increase the medical school enrollment quota. (Yonhap) A patient is transported to the emergency room in Seoul on Saturday amid a walkout by trainee doctors protesting the government's plan to increase the medical school enrollment quota. (Yonhap)

Major hospitals across the country continued to experience disruptions Saturday as thousands of trainee doctors remained off their jobs for the fifth consecutive day in protest against the government's plan to raise the medical school enrollment quota.

Nearly 100 general hospitals have canceled or postponed nonessential procedures and turned away non-emergency patients, prioritizing service for severe emergency cases to minimize the growing strain on the medical system.

As of Thursday night, 8,897, or 78.5 percent, of the 13,000 trainee doctors from 96 major teaching hospitals in Seoul and elsewhere have submitted their resignations, with 7,863 of them not reporting for work, according to the health ministry.

More junior doctors are expected to join the protest, raising concerns as they play a vital role in assisting with surgeries and emergency services.

One hospital, Chungnam National University Hospital, located in the central city of Daejeon, turned away some patients seeking emergency care Saturday due to a limited number of available physicians to handle urgent cases, such as cardiac arrest.

"A grandmother came to the emergency room alone this morning, but (the hospital) says it can only accommodate critical patients, making treatment impossible," said a paramedic, noting that the patient would be transported to a smaller hospital nearby.

Hospitals have struggled to maintain their operations by enlisting the help of doctors in fellowship programs, professors and nurses to fill the void.

Since raising its four-scale health care service crisis gauge to the highest level of "serious" from "cautious," the government has also advised patients with mild symptoms to utilize nearby clinics instead of general hospitals.

Furthermore, the government has temporarily extended telemedicine services, such as consultations and prescriptions, at all hospitals and clinics until the end of the walkout.

The telemedicine services had been partially available since 2020 in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic under strict regulations.

Additionally, military hospitals nationwide have fully opened their emergency rooms to the public since Tuesday to address public health concerns over emergency services.

According to the defense ministry, a total of 32 civilians had received treatment at military hospitals as of noon Saturday.

Doctors and medical students have voiced opposition to the government's plan to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools next year from the current 3,058 seats to address a shortage of doctors.

The government plans to remedy a shortfall of 15,000 physicians expected by 2035.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA), a main lobby group for doctors, argues that there are already sufficient physicians and that simply increasing the quota of medical students would lead to unnecessary medical costs.

Furthermore, the KMA argues that the plan fails to address issues, such as overburdening and the lack of incentives for doctors who specialize in essential health care services, including pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine.

In contrast, the government said that the country should begin training more new doctors to address the challenges posed by a rapidly aging society, citing examples of other major developed countries facing shortages of physicians.

The number of doctors in South Korea relative to the size of the population is among the lowest in the developed world, according to health authorities.

Despite authorities repeatedly warning of police investigations or even arrests of physicians participating in the walkout in the case of patient deaths, the KMA plans to hold large-scale rallies in Seoul on Sunday and March 3.

In a statement released late Saturday, the Medical Professors Association of Korea said it will make utmost efforts to help resolve the current medical crisis and serve as arbitrator in the disputes between the government and the doctors' group for a breakthrough.

On Friday, the government raised its health alert to "severe" from "cautious" after emergency departments at major hospitals have been squeezed since the walkout began Tuesday.

Early this week, President Yoon Suk Yeol said the government won't surrender to the doctors' collective action this time as it did in 2014 and 2020, when it failed to adopt telemedicine services and to increase the medical school enrollment quota, respectively.

A recent Gallop Korea poll shows about 76 percent of respondents were in favor of the government's plan, regardless of political affiliation. (Yonhap)