Medical service disruption imminent over trainee doctors’ looming walkout

SEOUL, South Korea is feared to suffer substantial disruptions to its medical service as trainee doctors have vowed to quit en masse this week, with some patients already experiencing postponements of planned medical treatments, officials said Monday. Interns and resident doctors at the country's five biggest hospitals in Seoul have agreed to submit letters of resignation by Monday and walk off the job starting at 6 a.m. the following day, in protest of the government's plan to raise the medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 next year from the current 3,058 seats. The five hospitals are Asan Medical Center, Samsung Medical Center, Severance Hospital, Seoul National University Hospital and Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, and junior doctors at other clinics nationwide have followed suit. Concerns about a vacuum in medical services have already become a reality for some, as trainee doctors at Severance Hospital declared the suspension of their service on the day, prompting the hospital to be on an emergency mo de and adjust schedules of surgeries and procedures for patients. "The number of planned operations here has been halved," a Severance hospital official said. "We've been checking schedules and other situations." The remaining four hospitals have also been notifying their patients of the possibility that their schedules will be adjusted. Online websites for patients have already been flooded with posts by patients and their family members voicing concerns and complaints. The country's health care system heavily relies on trainee doctors, as they play a key role in emergency and acute health care duties. South Korea has around 13,000 trainee doctors across the country, and the number at the five biggest hospitals in Seoul came to about 2,745, or about 21 percent of the total. Trainee doctors at the five hospitals account for about 40 percent of the total doctors there, according to government data. Facing a looming crisis, the government decided to activate an emergency treatment system "to be fully pre pared for all possible scenarios." It will maintain a 24-hour operation system at all of the country's 409 hospitals with emergency rooms by allocating medical staff, shifting mildly ill patients to other clinics and opening military hospitals to the public. Telemedicine services will be fully allowed in the event of a walkout by doctors in order to ensure that chronic and mild patients receive necessary care. The government is also considering using physical assistant nurses and easing regulations temporarily to mobilize all medical personnel available for key medical services. "I desperately ask trainee doctors to scrap their plan to resign and turn their back on patients," Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said. "The government will surely improve the current medical system so that doctors can receive quality education and training under better circumstances." Park also renewed the call on doctors to come to the dialogue table to discuss broader medical reform measures but reiterated that the g overnment will never change the medical school quota hike plan. The ministry ordered all trainee doctors to keep providing medical treatment, reiterating its firm stance against any collective action. Doctors who do not return to work could face up to three years in prison, and the government has also warned of the revocation of their licenses if they refuse to comply with back-to-work orders. The government says the increase in the admission quota is needed to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine. The number of doctors per 1,000 people in South Korea came to 2.6, far below the average of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) member nations of 3.7, and the country is expected to run short of 15,000 doctors by 2035, particularly given the rapid population aging, according to the ministry. But doctors have claimed that the government has not had full cons ultations on the matter and that the move would rather compromise the quality of medical education and services. They also say that simply raising the number of medical students will never remedy the problems of the current disproportionate number of doctors in some areas and the lack of specialists in key disciplines, and the government must seek ways to better protect doctors from malpractice suits and the prosecution and increasing medical fees, among other things. The government's plan on the enrollment cap has drawn support from the public, which has been increasingly frustrated with long wait times to see doctors. The move, meanwhile, has further fanned the craze for medical schools in South Korea, where doctors are one of the best-paid groups among all professions. Source: Yonhap News Agency