South Korea Striking doctors face arrest if they don39t return

South Korea: Striking doctors face arrest if they don't return to work

  • By Jean Mackenzie
  • Seoul correspondent

2 hours ago

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South Korean doctors protest against the government's medical policy in front of the presidential office in Seoul

The South Korean government has threatened to arrest thousands of striking junior doctors and revoke their medical licenses if they do not return to work on Thursday.

About three-quarters of the country's young doctors have quit their jobs in the past week, causing disruptions and delays in operations at major teaching hospitals.

The aspiring doctors are protesting against the government's plans to admit significantly more medical students to universities each year in order to increase the number of doctors in the system.

South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed countries, and with its rapidly aging population, the government warns there will be an acute shortage within a decade.

The empty hallways of St. Mary's Hospital in Seoul this week offered a glimpse of what that future might look like. There was hardly a doctor or patient in sight in the triage area outside the emergency room, and patients were warned to stay away.

Ryu Ok Hada, a 25-year-old doctor, and his colleagues have not been to the hospital for over a week.

“It feels weird not getting up at 4 a.m.,” Ryu joked. The young doctor told the BBC he was used to working more than 100 hours a week, often 40 hours without sleep. “It’s crazy how much we work for so little pay.”

Although doctors' salaries are relatively high in South Korea, Ryu argues that he and other young doctors may end up earning less than minimum wage because of the number of hours they work. More doctors won't solve the structural problems in the health care system that cause them to be overworked and underpaid, he says.

Healthcare in South Korea is largely privatized but affordable. Prices for emergency surgeries, life-saving operations and specialist treatment are set too low, doctors say, while less vital treatments such as cosmetic surgery are too expensive. That means doctors are increasingly working in more lucrative fields in big cities, leaving rural areas understaffed and emergency rooms overwhelmed.

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Ryu Ok Hada, a doctor at St. Mary's Hospital, has not been to work in over a week

Ryu, who has been working for a year, says interns and young doctors are exploited by university hospitals because of their cheap labor. In some larger hospitals, they make up more than 40% of the staff and play a critical role in maintaining operations.

As a result, operating room capacity in some hospitals has halved over the past week. The disruption was largely limited to planned procedures being postponed, with only a few isolated critical care cases affected. Last Friday, an elderly woman who suffered cardiac arrest died in an ambulance after seven hospitals reportedly refused to treat her.

“There are no doctors”

Patience with doctors is running out, both for the public and for health care workers who have to take on the extra work. Nurses have warned that they will be forced to perform procedures in operating theaters that would normally be the responsibility of their medical colleagues.

Ms Choi, a nurse at a Seoul hospital, told the BBC her shifts had been extended by an hour and a half each day and she was now doing the work of two people.

“Patients are worried and I am frustrated that this continues with no end in sight,” she said, urging doctors to get back to work and find another way to address their complaints to express.

Under government proposals, the number of medical students admitted to the university will rise from 3,000 to 5,000 next year. The striking doctors argue that training more doctors would degrade the quality of health care because it would mean fewer competent doctors getting their medical licenses.

But doctors have struggled to convince the public that more doctors would be a bad thing and have elicited little sympathy. At Severance Hospital in Seoul on Tuesday, Ms. Lee, 74, was treated for colon cancer after driving more than an hour there.

“There are no doctors outside the city we live in,” she said.

“This issue has been put off for too long and needs to be addressed,” said Lee’s husband, Soon-dong. “The doctors are too selfish. They are taking us patients hostage.”

The couple were concerned that more doctors might join the strike and said they would be happy to pay more for their treatment if it would resolve the dispute.

However, President Yoon Suk Yeol's approval rating has improved since the strike began, meaning the government has little incentive to start overhauling the system and making procedures more expensive closer to the April election.

Both sides are now in a bitter stalemate. The Health Ministry has refused to accept doctors' resignations and instead is threatening to have them arrested for medical law violations if they do not return to hospitals by the end of the day. Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo has said that those who miss the deadline will also have their license revoked for at least three months.

However, some of those who left believe the government's heavy-handed approach could influence public opinion. On Sunday, the Korean Medical Association will vote on whether senior doctors should join the junior doctors. When large proportions of their younger colleagues have been arrested, they are more likely to take action.

Ryu said he was prepared to be arrested and lose his license to practice medicine, and that he would quit the profession if the government did not compromise or listen to his complaints.

“The medical system is broken and if it continues like this it has no future, it will collapse,” he said. “I’ve worked in agriculture before, so maybe I could go back to that.”

Additional reporting by Jake Kwon