Patients left stranded as South Korea clinics shut down amid doctors’ strike

A notice at a paediatric clinic in Nowon on June 18 says that the clinic will be closed for the entire day. - Photo: The Korea Herald/ANN

SEOUL: Choi Jung-hwa, a woman in her 30s, discovered a notice of service suspension on Tuesday (June 18) at the internal medicine clinic she regularly visited in Nowon-gu, northern Seoul, for heartburn treatment.

Although she was aware of the ongoing months-long confrontation between the government and doctors over expanding medical school quotas, she had not anticipated it would disrupt her access to medical care.

“I didn’t expect that even this local clinic where I have been treated would be closed,” she said while reading the notice that the clinic would be closed in the afternoon of June 18.

“I heard about the doctors’ strike in the media, but I didn’t think it was relevant to me,” she said, adding that she came to the clinic after checking online that it was operating.

On the day the nation’s largest doctors’ group went on strike, the health ministry said only 4.02 per cent of the nation’s 36,371 community hospitals, excluding dental and traditional Korean medicine clinics, reported to authorities that they would close their clinics.

However, the actual number of striking doctors would be likely higher, as some may reduce business hours or simply give no notice of service suspension, according to officials.

The clinic in Nowon where Choi visited was not on the list of medical institutions that reported to the government that they would be closed.

As of June 13, the last day the government allowed community doctors to report their plans to take a day off on June 18, no clinics in Nowon-gu had reported.

Out of 40 community hospitals in Nowon-gu The Korea Herald visited on June 18, six were either closed for the entire day or in the afternoon.

Of the six clinics, three were paediatric ones, two were psychiatric and one was for internal medicine.

None of the notices mentioned the strike; instead, they cited reasons such as air-conditioning failure and changes in personal schedules for the closure.

Those reasons are stated to avoid facing legal punishment, according to local reports.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said on June 18 that the government ordered community doctors who joined the one-day walkout to return to work, warning that they would face legal repercussions if they did not comply.

Four months into the prolonged medical stand-off, the one-day walkout occurred a day after about 55 per cent of medical professors at four major hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University began an indefinite walkout, further raising concerns about public health services.

Patients in other districts also expressed concerns.

A woman who identified herself by her surname of Shin, who lives in Gangseo-gu and has a three-year-old son, said she and the other mothers in her community were very concerned about the situation.

“Children have weak immunity (systems) and always deal with infectious diseases such as colds,” she said.

“I am worried that my child will not be able to go to the hospital when he has a high fever due to the prolonged medical disruption. If people can’t get the medical care they deserve, I think society should disqualify doctors who put people’s lives at risk.” - The Korea Herald/ANN

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