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South Korea: Thousands of doctors resign in protest, medical services disrupted. Know why

At least 6,400 of 13,000 trainee doctors in South Korea have tendered resignations en masse and 1,630 of them staged a walkout by Monday. The Health Ministry urged them to return to work immediately amid fears of delays in surgical operations and patient treatment.

Aveek Banerjee Edited By: Aveek Banerjee @AveekABanerjee Seoul Updated on: February 20, 2024 13:23 IST
South Korea, Trainee doctors, protest, government plan
Image Source : AP Trainee doctors attend a meeting at the Korea Medical Association building in Seoul.

Seoul: Thousands of trainee doctors in South Korea have resigned or staged a walkout from their jobs on Tuesday to protest against a government plan to admit more students to medical schools, triggering cancellations of surgeries and other medical treatments at hospitals. The Health Ministry urged them to return to work immediately, saying they must not endanger the lives of patients to fight the government.

As of Monday, more than 6,000 of the 13,000 doctors and interns at large hospitals handed in en masse resignations and some 1,630 of them had left by 11 pm (local time) on Monday. More trainee doctors are expected to follow suit. Under a decision made by their association last week, trainee doctors at the country's five major hospitals were supposed to walk off collectively on Tuesday.

The industrial action came despite a government order for the doctors to stay at work, and major hospitals said they were altering surgery schedules and patient appointments. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo ordered emergency measures such as the use of telemedicine, more operations at public hospitals and the opening up of military clinics.

Why are doctors in South Korea protesting?

The dispute started when the Yoon Suk Yeol-led government announced that it would raise medical school admissions by 2,000 from next year. The government says it's urgent to have more doctors to address what it calls a shortage of doctors, given the country's fast-aging population. South Korea's population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

However, the plan triggered a massive backlash as doctors and medical student groups say there are already sufficient physicians and an increase in numbers could lead to unnecessary medical procedures and undermine the finances of the national health insurance plan. They slammed the government for not consulting doctors and "demonising" existing factors.

Adding medical school places is key to improving access to basic healthcare in remote areas and developing cutting-edge technologies, President Yoon Suk Yeol told a cabinet meeting. "It is a task of the times that can no longer be delayed," he added.

The doctors argue that the new plan would also lead to unnecessary medical treatments due to increased competition among doctors, even though their critics argue that doctors mainly worry their incomes would drop if there were more doctors. About 76% of South Koreans back the plan for more medical students, a Gallup Korea poll showed last week, amid concerns about an acute shortage of doctors for paediatrics, emergency units and clinics outside the greater Seoul area.

What will happen if protests continue?

South Korea has a total of 140,000 doctors. Most of the 13,000 trainee doctors work at 100 hospitals across South Korea, assisting senior doctors during surgeries and treating patients. If their walkouts are prolonged or joined by senior doctors, that could cause disruptions at those hospitals and in South Korea's overall medical service, according to observers. 

At Seoul's Asan Medical Centre, a nurse said it's unclear how long senior doctors could solely perform surgeries and other treatments without the assistance of trainee doctors, adding that they typically handle skin incision and disinfection during surgeries. She said her hospital plans to delay the planned acceptance of some cancer patients and to release inpatients early.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said authorities have received 34 public complaints related to the trainee doctors' walkouts – 25 of them over the cancellation of surgeries. Other cases include hospitals refusing to treat patients and cancelling planned medical treatments. “If you leave your patients to oppose a government policy despite knowing what your collective action would cause, that can't be justified at all," Park said, appealing them to return.

(with inputs from agencies)

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