South Korea Issues 'Severe' Health Alert Over Doctors' Strike


(MENAFN- The Peninsula) AFP

Seoul: South Korea has raised its public health alert to the highest level, authorities announced on Friday, saying health services were in crisis after thousands of doctors resigned over proposed medical reforms.

More than 8,890 junior doctors -- 78.5 percent of the trainee workforce -- have quit, Seoul's Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told a press briefing, as part of a spiralling protest against government plans to sharply increase medical school admissions.

Of those that resigned, 7,863 have not shown up to work -- although their resignation letters have not been officially accepted or processed, and the government has ordered many of them to return to their hospitals, he added.

Doctors are considered essential workers in South Korea and are restricted by law from striking, with the government repeatedly claiming the mass resignation is unlawful.

"Illegal collective actions that threaten public health cannot be justified for any reason," the health ministry's Park said.

The collective action has resulted in the cancellation or postponement of surgeries for cancer patients and C-sections for pregnant women, among other treatments, while patients with severe illnesses have urgently requested that the doctors return to work.

"Due to growing concerns about the damage to the health and lives of the citizens caused by collective actions of doctors, the health care disaster alert level has been raised from 'Caution' to 'Severe'," Park told reporters.

South Korea's general hospitals rely heavily on trainees for emergency operations and surgeries. The government will temporarily expand telemedicine services in medical institutions to address the situation, Park said.

It is the first time that the alert has been raised to the "Severe" level due to a "health care (service) crisis", he added.

It was raised to that level during the Covid-19 pandemic, but over the infectious disease, not service provision issues.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government will ensure all public hospitals are operating at "maximum" with extended weekday hours and greater service availability on weekends and holidays to alleviate the situation.

Seoul says it has one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among developed countries, and the government is pushing hard to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools annually, from next year.

Doctors have voiced fierce opposition to the government's plan, claiming it would hurt the quality of service.

Proponents of the reform say doctors are mainly concerned reforms could erode their salaries and social status.

Junior doctors say the new medical education reforms are the final straw in a profession where they already struggle with tough working conditions, and that the over-reliance on trainees in the current healthcare system was not reasonable or fair.

But polls suggest up to 75 percent of the South Korean public supports the increase in medical school admissions, with those living in remote areas struggling to access quality health care.

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