The Korea Herald


How will med professors' walkout on June 18 impact hospitals?

Approximately 43,000 outpatient appointments could be postponed, while some doctors say they will remain by patients

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 14, 2024 - 15:38

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Patients and their guardians at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap) Patients and their guardians at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)

Professors at 40 medical schools, along with private practitioners, have decided to join a one-day shutdown of services on Tuesday, organized by the largest doctors' group here, with the scope of the impact on South Korea's health care system as yet unknown.

While some doctors will not participate in the strike and instead fill medical vacancies, widespread disruptions are still expected.

Apart from the June 18 full shutdown of services, a handful of emergency committees of professors at the country's top medical institutions have also announced indefinite walkouts starting next week, which is expected to cause widespread disruption to medical services, longer waiting lines and an increase in delays.

Should the professors all participate in shutting down their services, some 43,000 outpatient appointments could be postponed, according to reports on Friday citing industry sources.

The average daily number of outpatient appointments at the nation's so-called "Big Five" hospitals after junior doctors walked off their jobs in mid-February has been approximately 8,000 at Seoul National University Hospital, 9,000 at Severance Hospital, 12,000 at Asan Medical Center in Seoul and 7,000 each at Samsung Medical Center and Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, respectively.

The average daily number of surgeries at AMC and SMC has halved from 200 to 100. However, next week, all scheduled surgeries could either be postponed or canceled, depending on how many professors actually walk out.

To prevent major disruption, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Friday requested that medical professors cancel their planned walkout, saying that there are "constitutional and legal restrictions to protect the lives of the people."

"A medical professional's legal responsibility is to protect the lives and health of the people. ... The trust (that medical professionals have) with patients is the reason and result of their dedication to their profession," he said during an on-site inspection of SNU Boramae Medical Center.

On Thursday, the government also warned of stern action against doctors who participate in the complete shutdown of services as a collective action as a possible violation of Article 15 of the Medical Service Act. It stipulates that a medical professional may not, upon receiving a request for medical treatment or assistance in childbirth, refuse to render their services without "any justifiable reason."

The medical circle, however, argues that patients and their guardians may not experience any chaos as emergency rooms and intensive care units will remain in operation, as will the treatment of severely ill hospitalized patients.

Also, medical professors have designated specific days for outpatient treatment, while other days are reserved for research, teaching or other professional activities, which will not halt all nonurgent medical treatment, according to doctors.

Door still open for patients

Amid escalating worries about patient health, some doctors said they would continue to provide treatment.

An association of medical professors specializing in epilepsy treatment, led by professor Hong Seung-bong at SMC, said in a statement issued Friday that the group has decided not to shut down their services on June 18.

"Epilepsy is a brain disorder in which the risk of physical injury and death significantly increases if treatment stops, so medical treatment should never be halted," the statement read, adding that doctors should refrain from acts that scare patients or cause them anxiety.

"Instead, it would be better (for doctors) to fight against the government's (expansion plan) by shaving their heads or going on hunger strike, sacrificing oneself first as people did in past democratization struggles," the statement continued.

Following suit, the Korean Obstetric Hospital Association will also continue to provide treatment, saying that obstetricians "can't break their promise to soon-to-be mothers." Around 140 maternity hospitals and clinics nationwide will continue to provide care.

The Korean Society of Anesthesiologists, a group of medical doctors specializing in administering anesthesia, said doctors needed for essential surgeries would provide treatment so that patients can receive surgeries on that day.

In addition, their peers at the Korea Children's Hospital Association, which consists of 120 children's hospitals nationwide, will offer treatment, saying they "sympathize with the KMA struggle," but do not want to leave patients behind.