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[From the scene] Patients left stranded as local clinics shut down

Only 4% reported closures, but many more clinic doctors appear to have joined strike, citing other reasons

June 18, 2024 - 17:23 By Lee Jaeeun
A notice at a pediatric clinic in Nowon, Seoul, on Tuesday, says that the clinic will be closed for the entire day. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)

Choi Jung-hwa, a woman in her 30s, discovered a notice of service suspension Tuesday at the internal medicine clinic she regularly visited in Nowon-gu, northern Seoul, for heartburn treatment. Although she was aware of the ongoing monthslong confrontation between the government and doctors over expanding medical school quotas, she had not anticipated it would disrupt her access to medical care.

"I didn't expect that even this local clinic where I have been treated would be closed," she said while reading the notice that the clinic would be closed for the afternoon of June 18.

"I heard about the doctors' strike in the media, but I didn't think it was relevant to me," she said, adding that she came to the clinic after checking online that it was operating.

A notice at an internal medicine clinic in Nowon, Seoul, on Tuesday, says that the clinic will be closed for the afternoon of June 18. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)

On the day the nation's largest doctors' group went on strike, the health ministry said only 4.02 percent of the nation's 36,371 community hospitals, excluding dental and traditional Korean medicine clinics, reported to authorities that they would close their clinics. However, the actual number of striking doctors would be likely higher, as some may reduce business hours or simply give no notice, according to officials. The clinic in Nowon where Choi visited was not on the list of medical institutions that reported to the government that they would be closed.

As of June 13, the last day the government allowed community doctors to report their plans to take a day off on June 18, no clinics in Nowon-gu had reported.

Out of 40 community hospitals in Nowon-gu visited Tuesday by The Korea Herald six were either closed for the entire day or closed in the afternoon. Of the six clinics, three were pediatric, two were psychiatric and one was internal medicine.

None of the notices mentioned the strike; instead, they cited reasons such as an air conditioning failure and changes in personal schedules for the closure.

A notice at a pediatric clinic in Nowon, Seoul, on Tuesday, says that the clinic will be closed for the whole day due to the air conditioning failure. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)

Those reasons are to avoid facing legal punishment, according to local reports. Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said Tuesday the government ordered community doctors who joined the one-day walkout to return to work, warning that they would face legal punishment if they did not comply.

Four months into the prolonged medical standoff, the one-day walkout occurred a day after about 55 percent of medical professors at four major hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University began an indefinite walkout, further raising concerns about public health services. Patients in other districts also expressed doubts.

A woman surnamed Shin, who lives in Gangseo-gu and raises a 3-year-old boy, said she and the other mothers in her community were very concerned about the situation.

“Children have weak immunity and always deal with infectious diseases such as colds. I am worried that my child will not be able to go to the hospital when he has a high fever due to the prolonged medical disruption. If people can't get the medical care they deserve, I think society should disqualify doctors who put people's lives at risk.”

A notice at a psychiatric clinic in Nowon, Seoul, on Tuesday, says that the clinic is changing its regular day off from Wednesday to Tuesday for this week only. (Lee Jaeeun/The Korea Herald)