SNU doctor walkout could set off domino effect at Korea’s major hospitals

Posted on : 2024-06-07 17:20 KST Modified on : 2024-06-07 17:20 KST
The SNU-affiliated senior doctors are asking for the government to completely eliminate any possibility of striking trainee doctors facing administrative punishment
A medical worker in scrubs and a white coat walks to the emergency medical center at a major hospital in Seoul on June 6, 2024. (Yonhap)
A medical worker in scrubs and a white coat walks to the emergency medical center at a major hospital in Seoul on June 6, 2024. (Yonhap)

Collective action by Korean doctors is entering a new phase as professors at Seoul National University-affiliated hospitals announced they will be suspending all but emergency room and ICU medical services on an indefinite basis beginning June 17. That will not only further disrupt medical care at the hospital but also increases the likelihood of professors at other medical schools following suit. 

Pushback from the medical community is intensifying despite conciliatory moves by the government, including a retraction of back-to-work orders, suggesting that the gap in Korean medical services will grow even worse. 

An emergency committee representing professors at SNU College of Medicine and SNU hospitals decided that the full suspension of medical services will begin on June 17 and continue indefinitely. Since the suspension covers all medical services aside from those in essential departments, including the emergency room and intensive care unit, it’s a tougher measure than previous walkouts by individual doctors. 

The decision to strike is based on the results of two surveys of medical professors, who also practice medicine at the school’s teaching hospitals. In the first survey, polled Monday through Thursday, which asked professors about what kind of action they wanted to take, 63.4% of 939 respondents expressed support for hard-line action, including a suspension of medical services. Then in a second survey on Wednesday and Thursday about support for suspending medical services, 68.4% of 750 respondents said they would join a total walkout that excluded essential departments (the emergency room and ICU). 

The emergency committee is asking for the government to completely eliminate any possibility of striking trainee doctors facing administrative punishment. 

On Tuesday, the Ministry of Health and Welfare walked back its previous emphasis on “law and principle” by retracting orders for trainee doctors to return to work and continue providing medical services and halting administrative procedures to suspend their medical licenses. 

However, the SNU medical school faculty believe that orders that were “retracted” and processes that were “suspended” could be reinstated and resumed at any time. Given the possibility that trainee doctors’ actions from Feb. 19, when they begin submitting their resignations, through June 3 could still be seen as “illegal behavior,” the emergency committee has called on the government to “completely cancel” its administrative orders, rather than simply “retracting” them. 

If the senior doctors at SNU hospitals walk off the job on June 17, as they have threatened, it will inevitably mean the disruption of medical care at the hospital. 

The emergency committee represents medical professors at a network of four hospitals altogether: not only SNU Hospital in Seoul but also SNU Bundang Hospital, SNU Boramae Medical Center, and Seoul National University Healthcare System Gangnam Center. 

Medical care at SNU Hospital has already been spotty. As of December 2023, 46.2% of doctors there were trainees — that is, interns or residents — representing the highest dependence on junior doctors at any of Seoul’s “big five” hospitals. As a consequence, the hospital has been most impacted by the strike of nearly all of Korea’s trainee doctors. 

Outpatients at SNU Hospital in Seoul on May 31 had fallen to 57.8% of levels on Feb. 1-7, a bigger decrease than the other “big five” hospitals, which are Asan Medical Center (77.2%), Samsung Medical Center (71.9%), Severance Hospital in Sinchon (66.6%) and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital (59.8%). Furthermore, SNU Hospital in Seoul (1,803 beds) and SNU Bundang Hospital (1,335) are university hospitals that provide highly sophisticated medical procedures, as well as being the medical institutions responsible for Seoul and Gyeonggi Province, respectively. 

“The impact will depend on how they take part [in the general strike] and how they adjust the care schedule. We’re keeping an eye on the situation,” said an administrator at SNU Hospital. 

Professors at other medical schools are planning to launch internal discussions about what their course of action should be going forward. 

“The committee will be meeting this week to discuss surveying the whole faculty and other matters,” said Lim Choon-hak, the co-chair of the emergency committee representing professors at the Korea University College of Medicine. 

“Professors at Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital are currently walking out one day each week. We’ll have an internal discussion about the decision reached by SNU Hospital’s emergency committee,” said Lee Do-sang, the head of the faculty association at the Catholic University of Korea School of Medicine. 

The government is taking measures of its own in response to indications that more medical professors will walk off the job. 

Kim Guk-il, the public health and medicine policy officer at the Ministry of Health and Welfare, said the government task force on the doctors’ strike would be discussing a possible response when it convenes on Friday morning. 

Meanwhile, patient advocacy groups have criticized the SNU medical professors’ decision to suspend all services out of concern for its potential harm. 

“The medical establishment has chosen to oppose the government in a way that will harm patients. Nobody would object if the doctors chose methods of resistance that don’t bring harm to patients,” said An Gi-jong, the head of the Korea Alliance of Patients Organizations. 

Kim Seong-ju, the chairman of the Korea Severe Disease Association, released a position statement as well. 

“The decision by the SNU medical professors to stage an indefinite walkout is an irresponsible abandonment of patients that rationalizes the greed of the medical community and treats that as being worth more than Koreans’ lives. This inhuman decision robs patients of their right to life and should therefore be immediately rescinded,” the statement said. 

By Lim Jae-hee, staff reporter; Son Ji-min, staff reporter 

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles