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South Korea raises health alert to ‘severe’ over doctors walkout

Doctors hold placards reading “Stop populist medical policy!” during a rally to protest against the government’s plan to raise the annual enrolment quota at medical schools, near the presidential office in Seoul on Feb. 21, 2024.

Jung Yeon-je | Afp | Getty Images

South Korea raised its health alert to the highest level on Friday after a mass walkout by trainee doctors this week, while the prime minister said public hospitals would extend working hours to respond to growing strains on the medical system.

Almost two-thirds of the country’s young doctors have walked off the job to protest a government plan to admit more students to medical schools, forcing hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures, and raising fears about further disruption to the medical system should the dispute drag on.

“The operation of public medical institutions will be raised to the maximum level,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said at the opening of a disaster management meeting.

Public hospitals will extend operating hours and will also open on weekends and holidays, he said.

So far, more than 8,400 doctors have joined the walkout, the health ministry said, equivalent to about 64% of the entire number of resident and intern doctors in South Korea.

While they represent a far smaller fraction of the country’s 100,000 doctors overall, trainee doctors make up a big portion of the staff at teaching hospitals, more than 40% in some cases, and play a key role in the daily operations.

Their role is especially pronounced in emergency rooms, intensive care units and operating rooms at the large hospitals, which are visited by patients referred to them by secondary hospitals and private practice clinics. Larger hospitals rely excessively on trainee doctors in part for cost reasons.

The growing pressure on hospitals prompted the government to raise its health alert to “severe” from “cautious” as of Friday.

Emergency departments in South Korea’s biggest hospitals have been squeezed since trainee doctors began leaving the job this week in protest at the government plan.

The doctors taking part in the protest say the real issue is pay and working conditions, not the number of physicians.

Senior doctors and members of the Korean Medical Association, which represents physicians in private practice, have not joined the trainee doctors in the walkout but held rallies demanding the government scrap its plan.

A large rally is expected in Seoul on Sunday.

The prime minister again pleaded with young doctors to not make the wrong choice that would forever tarnish the sacrifice and dedication they showed during the COVID-19 pandemic that had earned them the respect of the public.

He also called on the medical community to stop “pushing young doctors” and said the government is always open to dialogue.

Many Koreans support the government’s plan to increase medical school admissions, with a recent Gallup Korea poll showing about 76% of respondents in favor, regardless of political affiliation.

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