South Korea doctors’ strike: ‘severe’ public health alert issued for first time | South Korea


South Korea has raised its public health alert to “severe” for the first time, after thousands of doctors went on strike to protest against government recruitment plans, in a dispute that shows no sign of resolution.

The walkout by 8,400 doctors had started to impact medical services, with major general hospitals forced to cancel up to 50% of operations and turn away patients seeking emergency care, according to the Yonhap news agency.

Media reports said emergency departments at all but one of the country’s biggest hospitals were on red alert, as doctors warned they would continue their strike action.

The doctors are protesting plans to raise the number of trainee doctors in order to boost the number of physicians in essential healthcare sectors such as paediatrics, obstetrics and emergency care.

The strikers, who represent almost two-thirds of the country’s residents and interns, insist they are campaigning for higher pay and reductions in their workload, and not against the planned recruitment drive.

But they have also voiced opposition to the hiring plans, claiming that there are already enough physicians and that additional recruitment would compromise the standard of medical care.

In response, the government has said more doctors will be needed to meet future healthcare challenges posed by South Korea’s rapidly ageing society. The government has forecast that more than a fifth of the country’s population of 51 million will be aged over 64 by 2025.

Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy near the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea. Photograph: Ahn Young-joon/AP

The health ministry said it had decided to “raise the healthcare disaster risk alert from cautious to severe” for the first time, citing the “intensifying” walkout and growing concerns over its impact on public health.

South Koreans waiting for medical care voiced dismay over the dispute, in which both sides have so far refused to compromise.

“If the government truly cares for its people, I hope they take a step back now, and doctors also take a step back, so that patients won’t be hurt,” a 34-year-old office worker with a broken leg told Reuters.

The patient, who asked to be identified only by his surname Kim, said he had been turned away by three hospitals before finally receiving treatment at a publicly run medical centre in Seoul.

“Doctors are supposed to treat patients, so it seems unreasonable for them to go on strike,” said Kim, whose broken leg requires surgery.

Another patient, Lee Joo-hyung, said he had been able to receive treatment for his asthma but was concerned he would struggle to find a doctor for his next appointment in three months’ time.

“So many doctors have submitted their resignations so we don’t know what will happen,” the 31-year-old teacher said. “I’m really worried.”

The doctors walked off the job on Tuesday, defying government orders to return to work or face punishment and even arrest.

Park Dan, head of the Korea Interns and Residents Association, said he was willing to be arrested. “Everyone is angry and frustrated, so we are all leaving our hospitals. Please hear our voices,” Park said in a radio interview, adding that the strikers were open to talks provided the government was prepared to listen to their demands.

Many South Koreans support the government’s hiring plans, with a recent Gallup Korea poll finding that 76% percent of respondents were in favour of more recruitment.


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