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Doctors’ strike puts pressure on Korean Catholic hospitals

Over 8,800 junior doctors have walked out to oppose the push for reforms in the medical sector
Doctors shout slogans during a rally to protest against a government plan to raise the annual enrolment quota in medical schools, near the Presidential Office in Seoul on Feb. 25, 2024.

Doctors shout slogans during a rally to protest against a government plan to raise the annual enrolment quota in medical schools, near the Presidential Office in Seoul on Feb. 25, 2024. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 29, 2024 08:20 AM GMT
Updated: February 29, 2024 10:48 AM GMT

Church-run hospitals in South Korea have expressed concern over mass walkouts by doctors protesting against a government plan to sharply increase medical school admissions, says a report.

Government officials said more than 8,800 junior doctors or about 71 percent of the trainee workforcehave walked out to oppose the push for reforms in the medical sector to tackle low doctor numbers and a rapidly aging population.

Officials at Church-run hospitals in Seoul, Eunpyeong, Uijeongbu, and Bucheon have warned of service disruption should the strike continue, Catholic Peace Broadcasting Corporation of Korea (CPBC) reported on Feb. 28.

An unnamed official from Saint Mary’s Hospital in Seoul said that they had assigned professors to manage surgeries and night shifts and were not facing any service disruptions at present.

“However, if the scale of the walkouts grows and the situation is prolonged, it will be difficult to maintain an emergency system,” the official said.

A hospital official in Eunpyeong said that the situation was manageable, however, there were concerns that “some departments will become fatigued as time goes on,” CPBC reported.

Meanwhile, a hospital official from Uijeongbu said that around 50 out of 70 specialist doctors were on strike.

Many have rallied in the streets to oppose the government’s plan to increase the number of medical students from just over 3,000 to more than 5,000in 2025.

South Korea aims to add up to 10,000 doctors by 2035 to cope with the country's rapidly aging population, CPBC reported.

According to the state-run Statistics Korea, about 18.4 percent of South Korea’s estimated 51.5 million population are aged 65 and over.

The government has defended the reform plan citing the doctor-to-population ratio in South Korea — only 2.5 per 1,000 people. It is the lowest among the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental platform of 38 developed nations.

Doctors argue that the current infrastructure is insufficient to train medical students and could lead to a decline in the quality of medical professionals who graduate.

Dr. Kim Se-hyun, an orthopedic surgeon, said that policymakers were “ignorant about the realities of medical education," CPBC reported.

"Medical education infrastructure and materials to accommodate a sudden increase in students are insufficient,” Kim said.

"The harm caused by low-quality doctors that will be produced through this process will be entirely borne by the public," he warned.

The number of doctors in South Korea has not increased in the last 23 years, CPBC reported citing government data. The number of medical school places available was 3,507 in 2000 and the latest figure is 3,058.

South Korean law bans doctors from striking as a form of protest.

However, the Korean Medical Association's Emergency Preparedness Committee has blamed the government for "pushing the healthcare system from a calm state to a disaster situation by imposing populist policies."

The government has threatened to "suspend their medical licenses” of the striking doctors and detain the strike organizers aiming to end the impasse, CPBC reported.

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