What’s happening in S. Korean hospitals as doctors strike?

SEOUL – Thousands of South Korean junior doctors have walked off the job to protest against medical training reforms, causing healthcare chaos.

The government is refusing to back down on its plans but has sought talks with doctors.

AFP looks at what we know:

What is the strike about?
Nearly 10,000 junior doctors — about 80 percent of the trainee workforce — handed in their notices and downed tools last week to protest against government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions to cope with shortages and an ageing society.

They say the plan would hurt the quality of service and the Korean Medical Association (KMA) has slammed the government’s “intimidation tactics”.

Proponents of the reform say doctors are mainly concerned the changes could erode their salaries and social status.

The government says South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed countries.

How has the walkout affected hospitals?
Up to half of surgeries have been cancelled in major hospitals since last week, local media has reported.

Most hospitals stopped offering non-urgent walk-in appointments and patients have described long waits for emergency care, with some being repeatedly turned away even in urgent situations.

Senior doctors are still working but local media has reported they will stage a rally this weekend. Some 25,000 people are expected to join, local reports say.

South Korean media reported on Thursday that a woman suffered a miscarriage after being turned away from hospitals, over a birth canal issue, because no doctors were available.

The government is also investigating a case where an elderly woman died of a heart attack in an ambulance after struggling to find a hospital.

What is the public saying?
Polling shows up to 75 percent of the public support the reforms and President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has taken a hard line on the striking doctors, has seen his approval ratings tick up.

The Korea Severe Disease Association, a patients’ group, condemned both the government and the KMA over the strikes.

Lee Hye-min, a 19-year-old university student, told AFP that her mother needed regular medical treatment.

“My mother has kidney problems and I remember her feeling very anxious as she went to the hospital. She was worried her doctors would go on strike, too,” Lee said. 

“I think (the strike) is too extreme. There are patients still in hospital waiting for surgery who have been completely disregarded for the personal interests of doctors.”

However, Noh Hye-sueng, 31, said the reforms would reduce the quality of medical care.

“When they expand the number of medical students, the new students won’t be as reliable because schools will have to accept anyone just to fill the quota,” she said.

Is there any hope of compromise?
With legislative elections coming in April, when Yoon’s party hopes to win back a parliamentary majority, the government is unlikely to compromise quickly, analysts say.

The Korea Association of Medical Colleges has proposed what it calls a compromise: an 11 percent increase in medical school admissions, compared with the government’s planned 65 percent increase.

The government rejected the offer.

In an attempt to convince the medics to return to hospitals by a Thursday deadline, after which they risk legal action, a health minister met a group of trainee doctors behind closed doors.

What about nurses?
Nurses are picking up the slack. Park Na-rae, a nurse and union member at Seoul National University Hospital, told AFP she and her colleagues were taking on tasks previously carried out by resident doctors despite fears over their level of legal protection.

The government offered new legal protections to nurses to cover “grey areas” where it was not clear if a doctor was required.

Many nurses are critical of the walkouts.

Lee Hye-ok, a nurse at one of the largest hospitals in South Korea, said nurses had previously gone on strike but had done so within the bounds of the law, taking measures to minimise the impact on patients.

“An irresponsible departure like this is nothing more than selfishness that uses patients’ lives as a bargaining chip, even if professors are still remaining at hospitals.” –AFP