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[Editorial] Seek to avert chaos

Medical professors are set to go on strike; KMA offers to vote on Tuesday’s walkout

June 17, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

A sense of fear is spreading among patients as doctors at major hospitals are set to go ahead with the planned walkouts in protest of the government’s decision to boost the medical school enrollment quota. With no sign of a breakthrough, concerns abound about how the government will respond to the ultimatum that the country’s biggest doctors’ group issued Sunday.

Medical professors -- who also serve as senior doctors -- at four hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University are to start a collective walkout Monday in support of trainee doctors who have been off the job since February.

The emergency response committee of SNU medical professors said Sunday that 529 of 967 medical professors -- 54.7 percent -- will join an indefinite strike to put pressure on the government to resolve the looming medical service crisis.

The committee said that 33.5 percent of operating rooms will be run, down from the current 62.7 percent, citing the survey results of medical professors. Earlier, 90.3 percent of all SNU medical professors signed a statement calling for the government to set up better medical policies in a show of support for the planned walkout. The SNU-affiliated hospitals, however, will continue medical treatment for severely ill patients and carry out critical operations.

As other medical professors at the so-called “Big 5” teaching hospitals have decided on a collective walkout or are weighing options, the Korea Medical Association, which has more than 129,000 members, said Sunday it will hold a vote on whether it will go ahead with Tuesday’s walkout if the government accepts its three demands -- reconsidering the medical school quota, revisiting the government’s policy package for essential medical services and canceling all penalties against the trainee doctors.

The KMA said the government should respond to its demands by 11 p.m. Sunday, and it would hold a vote among all members on Monday should the government accept the three demands.

Before the KMA made an offer, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo on Sunday criticized the doctors’ walkout plans and reiterated that the government cannot cancel its decision to increase medical school enrollment, as demanded by protesting medical doctors and trainee doctors.

“The strike will leave big scars on the entire Korean society and undermine the trust built between doctors and patients over the past decades,” Han said at a meeting to deal with collective actions by doctors. “It is regrettable that doctors maintain their position on the planned walkout even though ill patients are desperately asking them not to strike.”

Last month, the country’s college education authorities approved the government’s plan to increase the number of medical school students and finalized the number for the medical school admissions quota for 2025 at 4,567, up 1,509 from the current 3,058.

In addition to the planned strike by doctors at the SNU hospitals, medical professors at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine announced last week an indefinite strike starting from June 27. The decision by Yonsei University Hospitals marks the second indefinite strike among the Big 5 hospitals.

Attention is now on how many community doctors will take part in the one-day strike on Tuesday, provided the KMA goes ahead with the plan. Given what has happened in the past, the participation ratio of community clinics is likely to remain at a low level, and a host of medical associations such as the Korea Obstetric Hospital Association announced they will not join the walkout, which was welcomed by patients’ advocacy groups.

But a bigger-than-expected walkout cannot be ruled out as some medical groups representing professors plan to join the strike.

Given the uncertainties about the impact of the strike, the government must take all possible measures to minimize potential risks for patients and continue to talk with doctors and medical groups to prevent their mass walkouts from crippling the country’s medical care system.