Nationwide Hospital Disruptions Continue Amid Extended Doctors’ Walkout in South Korea

Seoul — Hospitals across South Korea faced continued disruptions on Saturday, as the doctors' strike extended into its fifth day, with thousands of trainee physicians protesting the government's proposal to increase medical school enrollment quotas. The walkout has led to the cancellation or postponement of non-essential procedures and a focus on severe emergencies, significantly straining the healthcare system.

According to Yonhap News Agency, as of Thursday night, a substantial portion of trainee doctors, 8,897 out of 13,000 from 96 major teaching hospitals in Seoul and other regions, have submitted their resignations, with 7,863 not reporting for duty. The protest is expected to escalate with more junior doctors joining, which raises concerns due to their critical role in surgeries and emergency services.

Chungnam National University Hospital in Daejeon, for instance, was forced to turn away patients seeking emergency care on Saturday because of a shortage of available doctors for urgent cases. The hospital's limited capacity to accommodate critical patients has led to some being redirected to smaller nearby hospitals.

In response to the shortage, hospitals have sought the assistance of doctors in fellowship programs, professors, and nurses. The government has escalated its four-scale health care service crisis gauge to "serious," advising patients with mild symptoms to visit clinics instead of general hospitals. Telemedicine services have been temporarily extended to all hospitals and clinics for the duration of the strike, a measure introduced partially since the COVID-19 pandemic under strict regulations.

To further alleviate the impact, military hospitals have opened their emergency rooms to the public, with 32 civilians receiving treatment as of noon Saturday, according to the defense ministry.

The core issue behind the strike is the government's plan to admit an additional 2,000 students to medical schools next year, aiming to address a predicted shortfall of 15,000 doctors by 2035. The Korean Medical Association (KMA), however, argues that increasing the student quota will lead to excessive medical costs and fails to address the underlying problems, such as the lack of incentives for doctors specializing in essential services.

The government maintains that training more doctors is necessary to meet the challenges of an aging society, noting that South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among developed nations. Despite the authorities' warnings of potential police investigations or arrests related to the walkout, the KMA has planned large-scale rallies in Seoul.

The Medical Professors Association of Korea, in a statement released late Saturday, pledged to mediate between the government and doctors to help resolve the crisis. This commitment comes as the government heightened its health alert level in reaction to the increasing pressure on emergency departments since the strike began.

President Yoon Suk Yeol has expressed a firm stance against yielding to the collective action of doctors, referencing previous occasions in 2014 and 2020 when the government did not proceed with telemedicine services and medical school enrollment quota increases. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup Korea poll indicates that approximately 76 percent of the population supports the government's plan, showing broad agreement across political affiliations.

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