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Private physicians, med professors start reducing work hours

April 1, 2024 - 14:48 By Park Jun-hee
Patients watch a news report of President Yoon Suk Yeol delivering an address to the nation on the medical school expansion at a hospital in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

Patient anxiety over health care disruptions is growing as medical professors and private physicians started reducing their work hours to protest against the medical school quota expansion plan on Monday, shrugging off the government’s efforts to facilitate talks.

The Medical Professors Association of Korea said medical professors, who are senior doctors at major hospitals, began shortening their work time to 52 hours a week to cope with fatigue from trainee doctors’ walkouts. They plan to fulfill their duty as doctors by focusing on essential medical services and treating seriously ill and emergency patients by reducing outpatients and surgeries, it explained.

Joining their peers, an emergency response committee of medical professors from 20 medical schools also went ahead with cutting their work hours starting Monday by taking a day off after working 24 consecutive hours.

In addition, the Korean Medical Association -- the country’s largest coalition of doctors groups with some 140,000 members, mostly involving self-employed doctors -- said it would take part in scaling back work hours as well.

“Private physicians have decided to reduce their weekly work hours to 40,” Kim Sung-geun, a surgical gastroenterologist at Yeouido St. Mary’s Hospital and head of the KMA’s public relations council, told reporters after meeting with the Metropolitan and Provincial Council Chairs Association of Korea late Sunday.

“(We) can’t force (private physicians) to participate, but those who’ve prepared will be able to start (reducing working hours) right away. Others will gradually follow suit, as the decision was made based on many members’ opinions,” Kim explained.

Fears are already escalating among patients, as clinics being open 40 hours a week for five days without providing additional medical services during weekends or late at night will likely lead to longer wait times and hospital overcrowding.

Currently, working hours for self-employed doctors are not regulated by the Health Ministry, which means the doctors have control over how many and what hours they work, unlike doctors employed at general hospitals.

The ministry also does not mandate that individual clinics provide medical services at night or on holidays. If private physicians choose to open their offices, the ministry provides additional medical fees as compensation.

As the standoff persists, the Korea Alliance of Patients Organization issued a statement urging the government and the medical circle to make concessions to reach a compromise and fill the medical vacuum.

“The current situation, which has lasted for some 40 days due to resignations of trainee doctors and professors, poses huge threats to patients,” the statement read