South Korea investigating whether woman’s death linked to doctor walkout

The South Korean government is investigating the death of a woman that may be related to the walkout by more than 9,000 trainee doctors, which has led to people being turned away from emergency rooms and surgery cancellations.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said Tuesday that an on-site investigation is being done regarding the death of a woman in her 80s from apparent cardiac arrest. Yonhap News Agency and other local media reported she was being transported by ambulance and denied entry to seven hospitals due to factors such as a lack of doctors. She finally arrived at a facility that would accept her and was pronounced dead upon arrival, Yonhap said. 

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration earlier gave doctors until Thursday to end their walkout without facing reprisals. The trainee doctors are protesting a government plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks as one of the most acute in the developed world.

More than 9,000 of the country’s some 13,000 trainee doctors have walked off the job in the labor action that just entered its second week. They contend the government’s plan does not address fundamental problems such as poor working conditions, a concentration of physicians in urban areas and not enough protection from malpractice suits.

The trainee doctors, similar to medical residents, play key roles in emergency care and their labor action has led some hospitals to turn away people and slowed down the delivery of health care.

The public has shown support for the government plan in a country facing a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest-aging populations. Yoon’s government has been preparing to arrest, prosecute and possibly suspend the licenses of doctors who don’t heed the ultimatum to return to work for organizing a labor action it contends runs counter to the law.

South Korea, Japan and other countries place quotas on medical school seats in a way to regulate the number of doctors. While Japan, which faces a similar demographic challenge as its neighbor, has raised its quota in recent years, Yoon’s government said South Korea has not increased the number of slots at medical schools for nearly three decades. 

Critics of that walkout in South Korea contend the labor action may be more about protecting the status as some of the best paid doctors in the developed world rather than improving the quality of the health-care system.

Yoon has seen his support rate rise to a three-month high in a weekly tracking poll from Gallup Korea as he has not bowed to pressure to scrap or reduce his plan to increase medical school seats. This could help his conservative People Power Party in April elections, where it is trying to take control of parliament from the progressive Democratic Party. 

The government has opened emergency rooms at 12 military hospitals nationwide to the public as some hospitals have been trying to steer potential patients away due to staffing shortages. It will also allow hospitals expanding the roles of physician assistant nurses to fill the void of trainee doctors and has implemented telemedicine nationwide. –BLOOMBERG