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Young South Korean doctors still on strike, forcing backlog of surgeries


SEOUL — Kim Sung Ju remembers sitting in his office last week in a state of dismay as he watched thousands of medical interns and resident doctors walk out on television.

“I received a call from a dying cancer patient the other day,” Kim, 61, said. “… He told me his treatment appointment was being delayed indefinitely.” Kim, head of the Korean Cancer Patients Rights Council, has been battling esophageal cancer himself for nearly a decade.

“How do they expect the country or patients like me to support their walkout when they’re leaving us to die?” he asked.

Nearly 9,000 South Korean residents and interns have walked out of work since Feb. 20, flouting orders from the Ministry of Health and Welfare to continue patient care. They’re demanding that the government reverse a decision this month to increase the number of students allowed into medical schools each year.

It would be the first time South Korea has raised the cap on medical students since 2006, a move that politicians have argued is necessary to blunt a severe shortage of doctors. The government said it would increase the number of medical students from 3,058 to 5,058 annually, starting in 2025.

“The problem is really this: Korea is currently the most rapidly aging society in the world. We will become a ‘superaged society’ by next year,” said Andrew Eungi Kim, a sociology and culture professor at Korea University in Seoul. Superaged societies are those where more than 20 percent of the population is 65 or older. “More than any other age group, elderlies require more medical attention. There’s a need for more doctors. There’s simple mathematics to that.”

Residents and interns have raised concerns about increased competition, a climate of fear about medical malpractice lawsuits, and what they say is insufficient pay for long hours. Some have said that more doctors may be needed but argue that the scale of the government’s quota increase has no scientific basis.

“These are the people who stayed up all night working more than 80 hours a week but were happy and rewarded to see patients getting better,” the Korean Intern Resident Association said in a social media statement. “We regret having to make the voices of young doctors heard in this way.”

South Korean authorities set a deadline of this Thursday for the strikers to return to work, threatening to cancel or suspend their medical licenses and warning that some may be indicted. Media reports of older patients dying as they await medical care have stoked national outrage.

There are only 2.6 doctors for every 1,000 patients, one of the lowest ratios recorded by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. But among OECD countries, South Korean doctors can earn some of the highest wages compared with the average national salary, with self-employed specialists earning nearly seven times more and salaried specialists earning about 4.4 times more. Salaried physicians earn an average income of about 255 million won (about $192,000) a year, according to a 2023 report from the Health Ministry.

About 80 percent of residents have submitted a letter of resignation, the ministry said Monday. Although hospitals haven’t accepted them, it said, surgeries have declined by about 50 percent across 15 medical centers because of the walkout.

President Yoon Suk Yeol warned last week that medical care in rural areas was collapsing, and the Health Ministry raised the health-care disaster warning level to “serious.”

“The safety and health of the people in these areas are now in grave danger,” Yoon said.

Park Dan, a 33-year-old ER resident doctor in training, said those striking aren’t wholly against the idea of expanding seats at medical schools. But he said he doesn’t think the government’s conclusion that 2,000 more medical students are needed each year was reached “after a thorough, objective review.” Instead, he said, authorities should create more incentives for doctors to work in departments that suffer the greatest shortages, such as pediatrics or the emergency room.

“The doctors on strike aren’t taking the potential consequences lightly,” he said.

Residents earn an average of 3.97 million won (about $3,000) a month after taxes, according to a 2022 survey from the Korean Intern and Resident Association, which is higher than the average wage in Seoul. However, they work an average of 77 hours per week in a job that Park said often takes an emotional toll.

Previous government efforts to raise the number of medical students were thwarted by a months-long strike in 2020, amid the coronavirus pandemic. Andrew Eungi Kim, the Korean University professor, said the long fight to keep medical school seats limited has been fueled by a fear of lowered salaries and social status for current doctors.

“If the number of doctors double over the next 10 years or so, of course that would lessen their status as one of the most respected, highly paid professions in the country,” he said. “I’m sure doctors are thinking about that. They want to enjoy that special status.”

“But I think the government must ensure that these trainee doctors do not work 12 or 16 hours or more a day. That must be addressed,” he added.

As the walkout drags on, Kim Sung Ju said he worries about fellow cancer survivors and patients. Some hospitals have been forced to turn away patients seeking emergency medical care, Reuters reported.

“I would respectfully ask that trainee doctors return to their patients and continue their protests against the government at the hospitals instead of out on the streets,” he said.

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