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Indefinite strike 'last resort' to salvage medical crisis: SNU med profs

Civic group says health sovereignty belongs to people, not doctors, urging reversal of planned walkout

June 14, 2024 - 17:52 By Park Jun-hee
The emergency committee of medical professors at Seoul National University and Seoul National University Hospital speaks at a press conference on the school's campus on Friday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

Apologizing to patients for the inconvenience caused by an indefinite strike to begin Monday, the emergency committee of medical professors at Seoul National University said late Friday that its decision was a "last resort" to address the country's unsustainable medical crisis.

Reading an apology statement to patients, Kang Hee-gyung, a medical professor specializing in pediatric kidney transplantation who heads the committee, said SNU professors could "no longer endure" the medical situation.

"(We) have repeatedly requested that the government promise to devise health care policies based on evidence and proper consultation (with the medical circle). ... I apologize that our outcry toward the government could mean despair to patients with severe illnesses or rare diseases," she told reporters during a briefing.

The remarks come a week after the committee announced it would suspend outpatient treatment and surgeries starting Monday, calling on the government to fully withdraw administrative steps to punish trainee doctors who walked off their jobs to protest the government's medical school admissions quota hike.

Kang, however, said the planned shutdown of operations does not include the suspension of medical services and operations for emergency, severely ill patients and those hospitalized, vowing that they would not bear the brunt of the strike.

Referring to her own case, Kang said around 80 to 90 percent of her patients are those with "mild illness," adding that she has been referring patients to local or nearby hospitals.

When asked if the committee could completely withdraw from the planned strike, Kang said it would consider doing so if the government shows "sincere and genuine efforts" in accepting the professors' proposal.

Oh Seung-won, a family medicine professor at SNUH, echoed that the committee would review the withdrawal if the government decides not to impose any penalties on junior doctors.

Kang also noted that medical professors are not joining the action to wage a turf war for profit, but because they believe they "shouldn't remain silent on injustice."

"The freedom to choose a career should be guaranteed," she said, referring to the government's previous order not to allow hospitals to accept junior doctors' resignations. "I can finally understand the cargo truckers who went on strike. I'm worried that (the same problem) could happen to firefighters, for example, if they plan to resign," she added.

Despite the committee's plea, however, public sentiment has been bitter.

A civic group named People's Solidarity for Participatory Democracy demanded that the committee reverse its decision to go on an indefinite strike, saying that health sovereignty belongs to the people.

"We can no longer tolerate the situation where health rights are being threatened and mocked by the market-based health care system. ... Doctors must return to their patients," it said.