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Patients feel let down by doctors' strike

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 11, 2024 - 15:00

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Patients wait in line in front of the Diabetes Center at Several Hospital in Seodaemun-gu, western Seoul, Tuesday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald) Patients wait in line in front of the Diabetes Center at Several Hospital in Seodaemun-gu, western Seoul, Tuesday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

Four months into the prolonged medical standoff, patients, once again, are left on edge as medical professors and private practitioners are set to take a day off next week, after the largest lobbying group for doctors voted to go on strike on June 18 to protest the government's drastic medical school quota expansion.

Waiting in line in front of Severance Hospital's Diabetes Center on Tuesday morning to pick up a prescription, Jung Ok-bun, a 67-year-old with diabetes from Gimhae, South Gyeongsang Province, lamented that this might be the "last time" she could meet her doctor.

"I (have come to Severance Hospital) every six months to meet my doctor ever since I got my kidney surgery five years ago. I'm not at that stage where I need a second surgery, so I come here to monitor my progress through medication therapy management," she told The Korea Herald.

"But what if doctors continue to go on strike, and my kidney function worsens if I can't get prescriptions and treatment in the future? I'm really frustrated but in fear at the same time as I keep thinking that today might be the last time I can meet my doctor," Jung said.

"I don't know what I'm supposed to do if medical professors go on strike or decide to stop providing medical treatment. I even heard that doctors in private practice operating their clinics are set to launch an all-out collective action next Tuesday, too."

News reports that self-employed doctors could go on strike have frustrated Kim Young-hee, a diabetes patient in her 80s, as she gets treatment at a private hospital in Seoul once every few months to update her prescriptions and monitor her blood sugar.

"Whether patients go to big or small hospitals, if they can't take their medications on that day or their treatment schedules get pushed back, it gives us extreme anxiety and impacts our health," Kim told The Korea Herald.

"Prescribing more medications to patients to go on strike so that we don't have to go through inconveniences means that doctors have turned their back on us for their greed. I respect their decision, but I'm not sure if going on strike is the best choice," she noted.

A patient who suffers from depression who had her treatment canceled on the day of the strike also wrote on an online community for depression that the hospital declined to provide her with additional pills due to regulations regarding medication management.

"Patients find it difficult to carry out their daily lives when they don't have access to medication, even if it's only for a day. ... I don't know what patients are supposed to do," the post read.

The Korea Alliance of Patients Organization expressed its disapproval of the decision to strike, calling on the medical community to stop piling on the pressure and causing anxiety for patients.

Meanwhile, members of the Korea Medical Association, the country’s largest coalition of doctors’ groups with approximately 140,000 members, declared Sunday that its affiliated private practitioners, professors at medical universities and doctors at government institutions would walk off their jobs on June 18 to protest the government's medical reforms, including a significant hike in the country's medical school enrollment quota.

The threatened walkout is expected to strain the country's health care system even more at a time when operations at major hospitals have been crippled for months by a protracted walkout by trainee doctors protesting the increase in the number of medical school seats.

Medical professors at Asan Medical Center -- one of the country's top medical institutions -- were also set to hold an online meeting on Tuesday at 5 p.m. to discuss whether to stop providing services. They plan to announce their future course of action on Wednesday.

Their peers at Seoul National University Hospital have decided to suspend outpatient treatment and surgeries beginning June 17.

Apart from the medical professors' plan to strike indefinitely, the Medical Professors Association of Korea and the emergency committee of professors at 20 medical schools have reportedly decided to take a day off on June 18. The schools include Yonsei University, Ewha Womans University, Hanyang University and the University of Ulsan, to name a few.