Telemedicine services also expanded to tackle doctors’ strike

Standing firm: Demonstrators during a protest against the government plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools in Seoul. — Bloomberg

Public hospitals in the country will extend working hours, the prime minister said, while expanding use of telemedicine to alleviate growing strain on healthcare services after a mass walkout by thousands of trainee doctors this week.

Hospitals have turned away patients and cancelled surgeries after about two-thirds of the country’s young doctors walked off the job to protest against a government plan for more admissions to medical schools, prompting fears of further disruption.

“The operation of public medical institutions will be raised to the maximum,” Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told a disaster management meeting yesterday, saying such hospitals would stay open longer as well as on weekends and holidays to take in the overflow.

As the walkout entered its fourth day, the health ministry said it was allowing all hospitals and clinics to offer telemedicine services, such as consultations and prescriptions, until now available only a limited basis.

More than 7,800 interns and resident doctors have walked out, the ministry added.

That is just a fraction of the country’s 100,000 doctors, but they have a key role in daily operations at teaching hospitals, where they can make up more than 40% of staff, as cost savings make them attractive for larger hospitals.

Nurses warned they were being forced to carry out procedures in wards and operating theatres that are normally the preserve of trainee doctors.

“The primary responsibility of anyone in the medical profession is to care for the patients’ health and life,” said Tak Young-ran, the president of the Korean Nursing Association, urging the doctors to return to work.

The growing pressure on hospitals spurred the government to raise its health alert to “severe” from “cautious” yesterday, after emergency departments in the biggest hospitals have been squeezed since the protest began on Tuesday. — Reuters

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