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Surgeries canceled as S. Korea doctors' strike grows

Cancer patients and pregnant women needing C-sections have seen procedures cancelled or delayed, as per local media reports
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.

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. (Photo: AFP)

Published: February 22, 2024 06:50 AM GMT
Updated: February 22, 2024 07:12 AM GMT

Pregnant women had C-sections canceled and cancer treatments were postponed Wednesday as the number of South Korean trainee doctors to walk off the job over proposed reforms swelled, officials and local reports said.

More than 8,800 junior doctors -- 71 percent of the trainee workforce -- have now quit, said Seoul's Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo, part of a spiraling protest against government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions.

Seoul says the reforms are essential, citing the country's low doctor numbers and rapidly aging population, but doctors claim the changes will hurt service provision and education quality.

Critics say doctors are mainly concerned the reform could erode their salaries and social prestige, and the plan enjoys broad public support among South Koreans, especially those in remote areas where quality service is often inaccessible.

Park said Wednesday that 7,813 trainee doctors had not shown up for work -- an almost five-fold increase from the first day of the action Monday -- despite the government ordering many of them to return to their hospitals.

"The basic calling of medical professionals is to protect the health and lives of the people, and any group action that threatens this cannot be justified," Park said.

The doctors' walkout was a violation of South Korean law, as medical workers cannot refuse so-called return to work orders "without justifiable grounds", he said.

South Korea's general hospitals rely heavily on trainees for emergency operations and surgeries, and local reports said cancer patients and expectant mothers needing C-sections had seen procedures canceled or delayed, with scores of cases causing "damage", Park said.

Hong Jae-ryun, a brain cancer patient in his 50s from Daegu, said that his chemotherapy had been postponed without clear future dates due to the current situation, even though the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver.

"It's absurd. In the midst of the conflict between the government and doctors, what can powerless patients say? It feels like a betrayal," Hong told AFP.

"When there is no one to trust and rely on other than doctors, it seems excessive to handle things in this manner."

A group of patients with severe illnesses, including cancer and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), said they were enduring "terribly painful days".

"We are desperate for every minute and every second. Severely ill patients need treatment right away," they said in a statement sent to AFP.

"We earnestly ask that trainee doctors who have left the hospital return to the medical field as soon as possible."

On Wednesday, a group of physicians who practice in Gyeonggi Province staged a protest in central Seoul.

They wore red headbands that read "(We) fiercely oppose the expansion of medical school admissions" and held banners stating "Stop populist healthcare policies pushed by socialist leftist scholars and bureaucrats".

The current South Korean government is conservative.

AFP has reached out to several trainee doctors who have resigned but was informed that they have decided not to give individual interviews.

'Neglected' 

Junior doctors say the new medical education reforms are the final straw in a profession where they already struggle with tough working conditions.

"Despite working more than 80 hours a week and receiving compensation at minimum wage level, trainee doctors have been neglected by the government until now," the Korean Intern Resident Association said in a statement.

The over-reliance on trainee doctors in the current healthcare system was not reasonable or fair, they added, claiming the government was treating them as if they were "criminals".

Nurses, who have been left in charge during the strike, urged doctors to return to work, even as they sympathized with their fight against the reform.

"Do not ignore your conscience toward the patients being left behind," the Korean Young Nurses Association wrote in a social media post.

Kim Jae-heon, the secretary general of an NGO advocating for free medical care, which also includes some medical doctors as members, said the trainee doctors' mass resignation "lacks justification".

While it is true that trainees often suffer from grueling hours, "opposing the expansion of medical school admissions to ensure greater profitability by reducing competition when they establish their own practices in the future is unlikely to garner public support", he told AFP.

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