Korea raises public health crisis level to ‘severe’ as country’s trainee doctors tender resignations en masse

Posted on : 2024-02-23 17:19 KST Modified on : 2024-02-23 17:30 KST
Surgery numbers have been nearly halved at some of the largest hospitals in the country
A monitor displays wait times and call numbers for the ECG room at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul’s Jongno District on Feb. 22, 2024, amid mass tendering of resignations by hospital residents and interns across the country. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)
A monitor displays wait times and call numbers for the ECG room at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul’s Jongno District on Feb. 22, 2024, amid mass tendering of resignations by hospital residents and interns across the country. (Kim Hye-yun/The Hankyoreh)

As the number of medical residents and interns in Korea who have submitted resignations in opposition to a plan to increase placements at medical schools has increased to 9,275, the government has elevated the public health and medical crisis to the highest level of “severe.” Following the departure of trainee doctors, emergency rooms at major hospitals are turning away patients and sending them to general hospitals in the area.

Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare raised the level of the public health and medical crisis from “serious” to “severe” in a meeting on Thursday. As of 10 pm on Wednesday, 9,275 trainee doctors at 100 hospitals around the country — where 95% of all interns and residents work — had submitted their resignations, and 8,024 of them had not reported to work.

The ministry sent back-to-work orders to 6,038 trainee doctors whose absences it confirmed through onsite inspections.

The country’s Ministry of Education reported on Wednesday that 3,025 medical students submitted requests to take a hiatus from their studies at 22 schools around the country. Combined with 8,753 students who did the same on Tuesday, a total of 11,778 medical students have now requested to pause their studies, representing 63% of the country’s medical students.

Samsung Medical Center cut the number of surgeries by 45% compared to its ordinary workload, while Seoul National University Hospital, Asan Medical Center and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital reduced their surgery workload by around 30%. Severance Hospital halted emergency treatment for 10 conditions, including emergency eye procedures.

Trainee doctors make up 30%-40% of the doctors on staff at these hospitals. With major hospitals understaffed, patients had no choice but to delay their surgery or to visit a smaller hospital in the area.

A government-funded support center handling reports about harm suffered as a result of the trainee doctors’ collective action said that 57 instances of harm were reported on Wednesday (as of 6 pm) and that 44 operations had been delayed.

The government and doctor lobbies accused each other of making false claims.

“The doctor lobbies are citing a 2.84% yearly rate of increase in the number of doctors between 2010 and 2022. But when we account for the fact that more doctors are retiring because of old age, the rate of increase falls to 1.67%. We’re urging [the doctors] to resolve this issue through discussion and debate,” said Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo in a briefing on Thursday.

The Korean Medical Association’s emergency action committee dismissed as a “lie” the government’s claim that it had discussed raising medical school placements with the KMA several times.

The Korean Intern Resident Association expressed concerns that increasing placements at medical schools would lead to less income.

Park Dan, head of KIRA’s emergency action committee, addressed the government’s plan to let more students into medical school during an appearance on “Kim Hyeon-jeong’s New Show” on CBS radio on Thursday.

“We’re concerned that they’re trying to make hospitals even cheaper by increasing the number of residents and interns, who work over 80 hours a week on the cheap,” Park said.

As for the government’s package of policies for essential medical services, Park said, “The package ought to at least detail how they mean to raise funds for dealing with these issues.”

In a related development, the government and the medical community are planning to hold a public debate. Park Min-soo, the second vice health minister, and Kim Taek-woo, the head of the KMA’s emergency action committee, will be debating the increased cap on medical school admissions on KBS 1TV at 3:30 pm on Friday.

By Lim Jae-hee, staff reporter; Cheon Ho-sung, staff reporter

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