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(2nd LD) Service disruptions grow as doctors' strike enters 2nd day

National 19:10 August 27, 2020

(ATTN: UPDATES with more info in paras 12-13; ADDS gov't holding off taking legal actions against striking doctors in paras 17-19)

SEOUL, Aug. 27 (Yonhap) -- Major hospitals in South Korea are facing disruptions on Thursday as doctors have continued their nationwide strike for the second day in protest of the government's medical reform scheme.

Tens of thousands of practitioners have joined interns and resident doctors at general hospitals for the three-day collective action, raising their voice against the government's move to increase the number of medical students.

Their walkout has gone ahead despite a mandatory return-to-work order from the government, which has warned of possible jail terms as it would cause major difficulties when the country is faced with spiking novel coronavirus cases.

A doctor holds up a sign criticizing the government at a Seoul hospital on Aug. 27, 2020, the second day of a three-day strike by tens of thousands of doctors nationwide in protest of the government's medical workforce reform. The walkout, the second of its kind, was organized by the Korean Medical Association, which has some 130,000 members. (Yonhap)

The walkout is the second of its kind and organized by the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which has some 130,000 members. The exact number of doctors taking part in the strike is not known.

The walkout has forced major general hospitals in the greater Seoul area to reduce working hours, delay some scheduled surgeries and cancel appointments, routine checkups and tests.

Seoul National University Hospital said around 60 surgeries were performed, sharply down from a daily average of 120, while the number of surgeries decreased by around 30 percent at Seoul Asan Medical Center.

"Surgeries are mostly performed on patients in critical or emergency condition," said an official from Seoul Asan Medical Center who asked not to be named. "We will face more serious problems when this situation continues."

Almost all of the 500 trainee doctors out of some 1,800 doctors at Seoul Asan Medical Center have joined the walkout, the official said.

S. Korea's doctors on nationwide strike despite uptick in COVID-19 cases

The general hospitals replaced night hours usually covered by interns and residents with professor-level doctors to prevent any disruptions at emergency rooms and rooms for critical patients.

Other medical staff, including nurses, have complained of their overloaded work and schedule, pleading that the government and the medical circle both find a breakthrough.

The walkout by practitioners at neighborhood clinics also caused some discomfort, but no major disruptions were reported due to the relatively low number of striking doctors.

The health ministry said that of 32,787 clinics in the country, 8.9 percent, or 2,926, were closed as of Thursday noon. The figure is less than the 33 percent participation rate by practitioners tallied in the first walkout earlier this month and down by around 600 from the previous day.

It said that if the number of clinics closed exceeds 10 percent of all medical facilities in a region, it will order doctors to return so as not to affect the right of people to receive treatment.

The KMA on Thursday urged more practitioners to join the collective action, saying that the government is threatening the future of medicine with the unjust order and further charges.

A day earlier, the government ordered striking junior doctors at 95 trainee hospitals in the Seoul area to return to work. Those who do not follow the government order without probable cause could have their licenses revoked and even face imprisonment of less than three years or a fine of less than 30 million won (US$25,000).

On Thursday, orders were individually sent to 358 striking doctors working at emergency rooms and intensive care units at 20 general hospitals in the greater Seoul area.

A doctor walks inside of a Seoul hospital on Aug. 27, 2020, the second day of a three-day strike by tens of thousands of doctors nationwide in protest of the government's medical workforce reform. The walkout, the second of its kind, was organized by the Korean Medical Association, which has some 130,000 members. (Yonhap)

Health authorities said most of the striking junior doctors have turned off their phones in an apparent move to avoid following government orders.

The ministry, however, has refrained from taking actions against striking doctors for the time being.

"At present the government is in the process of listening to what doctors have to say through various channels, so taking legal action has been put on hold," an official source said.

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo met with the heads of several university hospitals earlier in the day to work out differences. Following the meeting that lasted 1 1/2 hours, Park said all sides agreed to find middle ground on key issues.

As part of the country's medical workforce reform plan, the health ministry is planning to expand admission quotas at medical schools by 4,000 over the next 10 years, starting in 2022, and to open a new public medical school, as it seeks to broaden the reach of health care services.

This will increase the number of students admitted annually to medical schools to 3,458 in the 2022-2031 period from the current 3,058, according to the plan.

The Korean Intern and Resident Association (KIRA) representing the trainee doctors and its members will not follow the government's orders to return to work.

Despite the government order, all of trainee doctors working at emergency rooms of Severance Hospital, a major general hospital in central Seoul, even submitted letters of resignation.

Other major hospitals are also expected to report more resignation letters in the day.

khj@yna.co.kr
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