NewsDoctors' Strike Disrupts Healthcare Services in South Korea

Doctors’ Strike Disrupts Healthcare Services in South Korea

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In a significant development this week, more than 1,600 doctors in South Korea initiated a strike, resulting in delayed surgeries and turned-away patients as hospitals grapple with the sudden shortage of medical staff. The junior doctors are protesting the government’s initiative to increase the number of trained physicians, citing concerns over heightened competition within the healthcare system.

South Korea currently faces one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among major economies, prompting the government to propose an expansion of medical school placements. The move aims to address critical shortages, particularly in remote areas and specialized fields such as pediatrics and obstetrics. However, doctors argue that increased competition would adversely impact their income, given the highly privatized nature of South Korea’s healthcare system.

While South Korean doctors rank among the highest-paid globally, with specialists in public hospitals earning nearly $200,000 annually, the current ratio of 2.5 doctors per 1,000 people remains the second lowest in the OECD group, surpassing only Mexico.

This week’s strike saw nearly 6,500 interns and residents, half of the junior doctor workforce, submitting resignation letters, and approximately 1,600 doctors failing to report for duty. The protest organizers, the Korean Medical Association and Korea Interns and Residents Association, urged members to cease work entirely, impacting emergency wards and potentially affecting up to 37% of doctors in major Seoul hospitals.

President Yoon Suk-yeol has ordered doctors to return to work, condemning the strike for “taking people’s lives and health hostage.” Reports indicate postponed cancer surgeries and patient transfers to other hospitals, highlighting the immediate consequences of the strike.

In response, the government has threatened legal action, including the revocation of practicing licenses, to compel doctors to end the strike. The extent of the strike’s impact remains uncertain, with hospitals implementing contingency plans, and concerns about service gaps persist.

President Yoon’s proposed solution to address the country’s doctor shortage involves adding 2,000 spots annually to medical schools, a 65% increase from the current intake. However, the Korean Medical Association argues that this move would strain the national health insurance scheme financially.

Despite public support for the government’s plan, with polls showing up to 80% approval, the doctor groups assert that an increase in numbers may not effectively address shortages in specific medical fields. This strike follows a similar action in 2020, where doctors successfully thwarted the government’s attempt to introduce more graduates during the Covid pandemic.

As the strike unfolds, there are concerns within the medical community about potential widespread participation across the profession, further intensifying the standoff between doctors and the government.

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