‘Half of cancer surgeries pushed back,’ but Korea's medical professors still cut hours

Posted on : 2024-04-01 16:47 KST Modified on : 2024-04-01 16:47 KST
Some medical centers have already placed limits on new outpatient appointments and first-time patients
Patients at a hospital in Seoul take in fresh air on the hospital grounds on March 31, 2024, amid a prolonged confrontation between physicians and the government over the latter’s raising of the medical school admission cap. (Yonhap)
Patients at a hospital in Seoul take in fresh air on the hospital grounds on March 31, 2024, amid a prolonged confrontation between physicians and the government over the latter’s raising of the medical school admission cap. (Yonhap)

Professors of medicine who work at teaching hospitals across Korea will reduce their working hours starting Monday. The move comes amid a prolonged standoff between physicians and the government over the latter’s initiative to increase the national medical school admission quota. 

Doctors at private practices have also announced that they will start a “law-abiding” protest by reducing their hours to the statutory limit of 40 hours per week.
With some tertiary hospitals already limiting new outpatient appointments due to a lack of staff to carry out procedures, the cut in working hours is expected to further exacerbate the ongoing health care vacuum in Korea.
Meeting with reporters after a meeting of the Korean Medical Association’s interim leadership committee on Sunday, deputy spokesperson Kim Sung-geun said that the association had concluded that private practitioners will reduce their working hours to 40 per week.
“While we cannot force private practitioners to adhere to such guidelines,” the spokesperson said, “those who have been preparing to join collective action will start beginning Monday.”
Medical school professors are also slated to reduce their hours spent with patients.

“It has been agreed that, starting Monday, physicians will take the next workday off after 24-hour work shifts,” announced an emergency response committee representing medical faculty from more than 20 medical schools nationwide, including those affiliated with Seoul National University, Yonsei University and the University of Ulsan.

“We have also voted to adjust the number of outpatient treatments and surgeries at training hospitals so as to maintain care for patients in intensive and critical care,” the committee said. 
This comes after the Medical Professors Association of Korea, which represents faculty councils from 40 medical schools nationwide, sent a letter to all training hospitals in the country on March 26, asking them to reduce the weekly working hours to 52 hours.
These working hour cuts come at a time when medical professors have been working for up to 36 hours straight, including overnight on-call shifts, to fill the vacuum caused by the en masse resignations of medical interns and residents.
With the few doctors still in hospitals now reducing their hours as well, the current gaps in patient care are likely to grow even more severe. 

“More than half of the surgeries for cancer patients are being pushed back. Those patients’ conditions will grow worse over time,” the chief of medicine at a tertiary hospital in Seoul told the Hankyoreh.
“Professors affiliated with the emergency measures committee are sending text messages encouraging cuts to work hours,” the doctor added. “I am worried that the situation will become drawn out as there are no signs indicating that the government and the emergency committee will engage in dialogue.”
Samsung Medical Center is already limiting outpatient appointments in some departments from early April through May. The hospital is not accepting appointments for first-time patients or patients who are seeking medical care for a new condition.
A source with the center said, “The number of surgeries has been reduced from between 200 and 220 surgeries a day to 100, with around 50% of all surgeries being postponed.”
However, the impact of the private practitioner’s shortened work hours is expected to be relatively small. When physicians refused to treat patients in 2020 in response to the Moon Jae-in administration’s plan to increase the medical school admissions quota, less than 10 percent of private practitioners closed their clinics. Also, private clinicians often deal with low-priority patients with mild conditions, so a reduction in work hours is less likely to lead to major interruptions in necessary care.
Jeong Hyoung-sun, a professor of health administration at Yonsei University, commented, “It’s not easy for private practice doctors to take part in collective actions because they lose income if they reduce the number of patients they see or stop treating patients altogether. It’s unlikely that this will spread to the point of causing inconvenience to the general public.”
Patients and their advocates, however, are expressing concern. 

“Cancer patients are going to the emergency rooms of tertiary hospitals only to be sent to secondary hospitals, which are already packed,” said Kim Sung-ju, the head of the Korea Cancer Patients Rights Council. “Physicians and the government are continuing to butt heads without coming up with even the most basic measures for neglected patients.”
Meanwhile, Minister of Health and Welfare Cho Kyoo-hong chaired a meeting of the government’s Central Disaster Management Headquarters for responding to the collective action by physicians on Sunday. There, he instructed that the operations of emergency rooms and intensive care units be closely inspected and that a third emergency supplementary measure plan be issued, following two others that were announced in February.

By Cheon Ho-sung, staff reporter; Son Ji-min, staff reporter; Yoon Yeon-jeong, staff reporter

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

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