Seoul in ‘emergency mode’ as doctors set to kick off new protests vs health reform plan

Hospitals are likely to see a drop in patient services this week as South Korea's doctors protest the government’s healthcare reform plan. - PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (The Korea Herald/ANN): South Korea’s health care crisis appears to be deepening, as medical professors and doctors are planning a general strike this week, prompting the government to turn to contingency plans to address a potential gap in medical services.

Some 50 per cent of doctors at four major hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University (SNU) are set to stage an indefinite walkout starting on June 17, a survey conducted by the emergency committee of medical professors at SNU showed.

Over 500 out of about 970 professors have decided to reduce or suspend outpatient treatment and postpone surgeries, as they call on the government to withdraw completely administrative steps to punish trainee doctors who have left their worksites since February to protest the government’s medical school admissions quota hike.

The operating rooms at Seoul National University Hospital, Bundang Seoul National University Hospital and Boramae Hospital are expected to see their utilisation rate drop to half their current level of 62.7 per cent on a normal day since the junior doctors’ walkout began, the committee explained.

Although emergency rooms and treatment for critically ill patients will remain operational, concerns are mounting among patients about potential gaps in medical care, even as Korea is known for affordable health care and easy access to hospital services compared to other Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development countries.

The Korean Medical Association – the largest coalition of doctors’ groups with approximately 140,000 members, mostly private practitioners – sent a “final ultimatum” to the government on June 16, saying its members will shut down their services and rally starting June 18 if their demands are not accepted.

The association announced three demands: restart from scratch a discussion about the government’s proposal to increase the number of medical school seats; revision of the issues suggested in the state’s essential health care package; immediate cancellation of all executive orders imposed on trainee doctors and medical students and a halt to judicial proceedings.

“If the demands are not accepted, we will proceed with a nationwide collective walkout on the 18th,” the association said on June 16.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also urged doctors to cancel their planned walkout this week, over concerns that such action could escalate the months-long standoff between the government and the medical community.

“This is something that leaves a deep scar on our entire society and destroys the trust built over decades between doctors and patients,” Mr Han.

He reiterated that the government will not penalise trainee doctors who return to work even now, and that it remains ready to engage in any form of dialogue with the medical community.

“However, no matter how many times we think about it, it is difficult to accept (the medical community’s) request to completely nullify a measure we took in line with the Constitution and the law,” he said, drawing the line on reconsidering the quota increase from scratch.

Opposition lawmakers from the National Assembly’s Health and Welfare Committee met protesting professors from SNU’s medical school and hospital on June 16, exchanging their views on ways to channel the intensifying standoff between the medical community and the government into political discussion.

Both sides agreed that the current conflict should not be prolonged and the right to health care should be the top priority, Representative Kang Sun-woo told reporters after a two-hour long meeting.

The main opposition party chair, Representative Lee Jae-myung, told President Yoon Suk-yeol at their first meeting after the April 10 general election that the Democratic Party of Korea agrees with the urgency and need for medical reform.

To reinforce the emergency medical care system during the walkout, the prime minister said the government will operate a nationwide on-call rotation system for each severe emergency disease from June 17.

Organisations that have applied for the rotational service will form at least one on-call duty system per day for each of the four regions, including the Seoul metropolitan area, the Chungcheong Provinces, the Jeolla Provinces and the Gyeongsang Province, to prepare for emergencies 24 hours a day.

To ensure that cancer patients receive timely treatment, the National Cancer Center beds will be fully operational and hotlines will be established with five major hospitals in Seoul.

The government will also provide support to patients who are affected by the doctors’ walkout, and if hospitals suffer losses due to the prolonged crisis, it will request a review of their claims for compensation. - THE KOREA HERALD/ASIA NEWS NETWORK

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