South Korea emergency units turn back patients as doctors protest

Thursday, Feb 22, 2024

SEOUL: South Korea’s biggest hospitals cancelled procedures and turned away patients seeking emergency care on Wednesday after thousands of trainee doctors walked off the job in protest at a government plan to boost medical school admissions.

One hospital, the Asan Medical Centre in Seoul, put up a sign saying its emergency unit was only handling cardiac arrest cases. The emergency departments at the other four hospitals were also on “red alert”, according to a government bulletin, meaning they were running out of beds.“It is so frustrating that the resident doctors’ strike is happening now,” the brother of a cancer patient who had spent 10 hours looking for a hospital bed told newspaper JoongAng Ilbo.

The health ministry says 7,813 doctors have left their jobs since protests began this week over a plan by the government to increase the number of medical students to boost healthcare staffing in remote areas and meet the demands of one of the world’s most rapidly ageing societies.

The government wants to increase the number of medical students to 5,000 from the 2025 academic year from 3,000 now, and then add 10,000 more by 2035.

The protesters, however, say South Korea has enough doctors, and that the government needs to address working conditions and pay, particularly in key areas such as paediatrics and emergency medicine, before recruiting more students. South Korea’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for peers in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation.