More Doctors Walk Off the Job in South Korea

Doctors at medical facilities across South Korea walked off the job in a one-day strike on Tuesday, dramatically if briefly expanding a months-old protest against the government’s health care policies that began when residents and interns at major hospitals stopped working in February.

The physicians taking part in the one-day strike belong to the country’s biggest doctors’ group, the Korean Medical Association, which has about 140,000 members. It was not immediately clear how many were participating, but its membership recently voted three-to-one in favor of collective action, according to the group.

South Korea’s president, Yoon Suk Yeol, called the latest walkout “very disappointing and unfortunate” in a televised cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning. It came a day after hundreds of medical professors at Seoul National University Hospital and other major facilities began an indefinite work stoppage.

“I have a bad liver and came to get an ultrasound,” Yang Myoung-joo, 84, a patient at Seoul National University Hospital, said on Tuesday. She said her appointment had been canceled with no new date provided. “Doctors deal with people’s lives. Is going on strike the right thing to do?”

The dispute began in January, when Mr. Yoon’s government announced new health care policies that included a plan to dramatically expand admissions to medical schools. Physicians say the plan was drafted without consulting them and would not solve the health care system’s problems. But the government says more doctors are badly needed in South Korea, which has fewer per capita than most developed nations.

Neither side has given much ground. In May, the government set the medical school admissions quota for the 2025 school year at 4,570 students, an increase of about 1,500 — fewer than the 2,000 originally proposed, but still a dramatic jump. That announcement appeared to be the trigger for the most recent labor actions.

“The government still hasn’t admitted to their wrongdoings, pushing forth with their errant policies and condemning the medical community,” the Korean Medical Association’s president, Lim Hyun-taek, said in a meeting with the group’s leaders last week. Dr. Lim says Mr. Yoon’s administration has long ignored the grueling work hours and low pay endured by doctors in pediatrics and other essential fields.

While the medical system has been strained since February, it hasn’t collapsed. To fill the gap in services, the government has deployed military doctors and asked nurses to take on some tasks normally carried out by doctors. The government said this week that it was running hundreds of emergency rooms across the nation and was making contingency plans in case the dispute is prolonged.

Prime Minister Han Duk-soo said in a recent statement that the doctors’ walkout “leaves a big scar on society and destroys the trust that has built over decades between doctors and patients.”

Much of the public has also been critical of the strike, with some accusing the doctors of trying to protect their elite status by keeping their numbers low. The backlash has extended to the medical industry itself, with unionized hospital workers rallying in Seoul last week to urge doctors to cancel Tuesday’s one-day strike. “Postponements of treatments and operations are a pain for patients and a tremendous pain for hospital workers who suffer endless inquiries and complaints,” a union statement said.

Kang Hee-gyung, a pediatrics specialist at Seoul National University Hospital who leads a committee of medical professors there who have stopped working, said at a recent news briefing that the action was a last resort and emphasized that patients needing immediate care would be treated. “We apologize to critical care and rare disease patients,” he said.

The government has tried to coax the interns and residents who walked out in February to go back to work, backing off on earlier threats to suspend their licenses and promising impunity for those who return. But only 7.5 percent of the roughly 14,000 interns and residents at 211 teaching hospitals showed up for work last week, according to figures from the health ministry.

Leaders of the protest say it will end only if the government scraps its medical school expansion plan. But a health ministry spokeswoman said the 2025 admissions quota was nonnegotiable. Patients are growing exasperated and losing hope for a swift resolution.

“This will probably take months,” said Ms. Yang. “As a patient there is nothing I can do.”

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