Operations cancelled as 9,000 doctors go on strike in South Korea

Published February 22, 2024
Medical workers walk at Severance Hospital in Seoul, South Korea on February 21, 2024. — Reuters
Medical workers walk at Severance Hospital in Seoul, South Korea on February 21, 2024. — Reuters

SEOUL: Pregnant women had C-sections cancelled and cancer treatments were postponed on Wednesday as the number of South Korean trainee doctors to walk off the job over proposed reforms swelled, officials and local reports said.

Almost 9,000 junior doctors — 71 per cent of the trainee workforce — have now quit, said Seoul’s Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo, part of a spiralling protest against government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions.

Seoul says the reforms are essential, citing the country’s low doctor numbers and rapidly ageing population, but doctors claim the changes will hurt service provision and education quality.

Critics say doctors are mainly concerned the reform could erode their salaries and social prestige, and the plan enjoys broad public support among South Koreans, especially those in remote areas where quality service is often inaccessible.

Park said that 7,813 trainee doctors had not shown up for work — an almost five-fold increase from the first day of the action on Monday — despite the government ordering many of them to return to their hospitals.

“The basic calling of medical professionals is to protect the health and lives of the people, and any group action that threatens this cannot be justified,” Park said.

The doctors’ walkout was a violation of South Korean law, as medical workers cannot refuse so-called return to work orders “without justifiable grounds”, he said.

South Korea’s general hospitals rely heavily on trainees for emergency operations and surgeries, and local reports said cancer patients and expectant mothers needing C-sections had seen procedures cancelled or delayed, with scores of cases causing “damage”, Park said.

Hong Jae-ryun, a brain cancer patient in his 50s from Daegu, said that his chemotherapy had been postponed without clear future dates due to the current situation, even though the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver.

“It’s absurd. In the midst of the conflict between the government and doctors, what can powerless patients say? It feels like a betrayal,” Hong said.

“When there is no one to trust and rely on other than doctors, it seems excessive to handle things in this manner.” A group of patients with severe illnesses, including cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), said they were enduring “terribly painful days”.

“We are desperate for every minute and every second. Severely ill patients need treatment right away,” they said.

“We earnestly ask that trainee doctors who have left the hospital return to the medical field as soon as possible.” On Wednesday, a group of physicians who practice in Gyeonggi Province staged a protest in central Seoul.

They wore red headbands that read “(We) fiercely oppose the expansion of medical school admissions” and held banners stating “Stop populist healthcare policies pushed by socialist leftist scholars and bureaucrats”. The current South Korean government is conservative.

Junior doctors say the new medical education reforms are the final straw in a profession where they already struggle with tough working conditions.

Published in Dawn, February 22nd, 2024

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