In face of public disgruntlement, strike by clinics sees underwhelming turnout

Posted on : 2024-06-19 16:25 KST Modified on : 2024-06-19 16:25 KST
Government surveys found that only 14.9% of clinics and hospitals nationwide took part in the one-day walkout
A sign on the door of a dermatologist's office in Seoul reads that it is closed on Tuesday, June 18. Next to it is a notice of a missed package from the post office. (Yonhap)
A sign on the door of a dermatologist's office in Seoul reads that it is closed on Tuesday, June 18. Next to it is a notice of a missed package from the post office. (Yonhap)

On Tuesday, a parent who lives in Seoul’s Haengdang neighborhood took their 4-year-old daughter to the neighborhood pediatrician because she had a runny nose. But the two were left scrambling to find another doctor’s office when they realized that their local pediatrician was one of many physicians who shuttered their clinics for the day as part of a mass walkout in protest of the government’s health care policy. 
 
“We tried our luck with a different pediatrician, but that one was only accepting patients during the morning,” the parent told the Hankyoreh. “I wanted to see a doctor quickly so I could send my daughter off to kindergarten, but there were so many people we had to wait another half an hour.”
 
With some private practitioners joining the Korean Medical Association’s (KMA) general strike on Tuesday, many Koreans seeking medical attention were left the lurch. However, contrary to the KMA’s warnings of high turnout, only 14.9% of clinics nationwide took part in the walkout. 

Despite the lackluster turnout, KMA President Lim Hyun-taek announced intentions for indefinite strike starting on June 27. The government has warned that such actions could result in the disbandment of the KMA, which is a statutory body.  
 
According to a survey conducted by the Ministry of Health and Welfare and the Ministry of the Interior and Safety on Tuesday’s walkout rate for hospitals and clinics nationwide, 14.9% of these medical institutions had closed for the day.
 
Daejeon saw the highest rate of participation in the walkout, at 22.9%, while South Jeolla Province had the lowest rate, at 6.4%. Individual municipal governments planned to monitor whether hospitals were closed in the morning and afternoon on Tuesday. If the rate of closures reached over 30%, local government officials would visit medical facilities to verify their closures and issue administrative penalties for violating the government’s order to return to work.

Physicians hold up signs reading “Doctors to the rescue!” at a mass rally held in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo District on June 18, 2024. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)
Physicians hold up signs reading “Doctors to the rescue!” at a mass rally held in Seoul’s Yeongdeungpo District on June 18, 2024. (Baek So-ah/The Hankyoreh)


 
However, none of these measures were implemented, as none of the regions saw rates higher than the 30% threshold. Initially, the KMA had predicted that a substantial number of clinics would join the strike based on an incredibly high 73.5% strike approval rate in a survey conducted in the first week of June. In reality, however, participation was half of what it had been during the mass strike on Aug. 14, 2020, when it reached 32.6%.
 
The likely explanation for the low participation is that private practitioners were reluctant to close their doors to their neighborhoods, whom they rely on for their livelihoods, in the face of extremely negative public opinion regarding the strike.

Lists of neighborhood clinics that joined the general strike were circulated online, with some commentors declaring that they would boycott clinics that took part in the strike. 
 
“For doctors who depend on providing treatments to pay their staff and other expenses, taking even a single day off can be quite a burden,” a director of a tertiary general hospital in Seoul told the Hankyoreh. 
 
Some major hospitals in Seoul also saw a decrease in the number of procedures on Tuesday. The emergency faculty committee at the University of Ulsan College of Medicine stated that 76 surgeries were conducted at the Asan Medical Center on Tuesday, which was roughly half of the surgeries that took place a week before, on June 11 (149 surgeries).

Outpatient treatments and surgeries were also down from their normal levels at Seoul National University Hospital and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital. In contrast, outpatient treatments and surgeries at Samsung Medical Center were at more or less the same levels as last week.

“We [normally] have around 8,500 outpatient treatments a day, and today was similar to that,” an official with Samsung Medical Center said, adding that “fewer than 10 professors requested leave or went off duty today.”

The KMA announced plans to continue its military response with a nationwide physicians’ rally to “stop the manipulation of health care” at 2 pm on Tuesday.

“We are demanding an immediate stop to the unfair oppression of interns, residents and medical students and a medical college admission hike that will plunge the level of health care into the depths,” said KMA chairperson Lim Hyun-taek.

“If the government does not accept these reasonable demands, we will be beginning an indefinite walkout on June 27,” he announced.

The administration also warned of a forceful legal response.

While presiding over a Cabinet meeting at his presidential office in Yongsan on Tuesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol said, “Since the government has a duty to protect the lives and health of its people, we have no choice but to respond sternly to illegal acts that forsake patients.”

By Cheon Ho-sung, staff reporter; Lim Jae-hee, staff reporter; Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter; Lee Ji-hye, staff reporter

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

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