(2nd LD) Gov’t raises health care crisis level to ‘serious’ over doctors walkout

The government raised its four-scale health care service crisis gauge to the highest level of "serious" Friday in response to the departure of doctors in their collective action against the planned increase in the medical school admission quota. In an effort to alleviate the growing strain on the medical system, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government will maximize the use of public medical institutions by extending their operating hours. It marks the first time that the alert related to public health has been elevated to the highest scale. "First, we will elevate the operational level of public health care institutions to the maximum," Han said during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters involving officials from related ministries. "We will extend the operating hours of all public health care institutions to the fullest extent possible on weekdays, and we will also expand services for weekend and holiday consultations," he said. Four regional situation rooms responsible for transporting severely ill emergency patients will be opened in early March, in addition to the existing ones, Han said. The government will also ease regulations related to the hiring of medical personnel to help alleviate the workload of doctors, nurses and hospital officials who remain at their workplace, Han added. More than 8,000 trainee doctors, accounting for more than 60 percent of the country's interns and residents, have walked off the job in protest against the government's plan to admit more students to medical schools. The walkout, which started Tuesday, has prompted major general hospitals to cancel between 30 and 50 percent of their surgeries and turn away patients seeking emergency care. Doctors and medical students have voiced opposition to the government's plan, arguing that there are already sufficient physicians and that simply increasing the quota of medical students would lead to unnecessary medical care. Furthermore, they argue that the plan fails to address issues s uch as overburdening and the lack of incentives for doctors who specialize in essential health care services, including pediatrics, obstetrics, and emergency medicine. In contrast, the government argues that the country should begin training more new doctors to address the challenges posed by a rapidly aging society, citing examples of other major developed countries facing shortages of physicians. Despite authorities repeatedly warning of police investigations or even arrests for physicians on walkout in the case of patient deaths, the Korean Medical Association, a main lobby group for doctors, has planned large-scale rallies in Seoul on Sunday and March 3.