As South Korea Doctors’ Walkout Drags on, Many Blame President

Eun Sung injured her right thumb in a fall in March and needed surgery to fix a torn ligament. But scheduling one has been difficult even though she lives in one of the most developed nations in the world, South Korea.

“It was so hard to get an appointment, and I was told the earliest available operation would be next January,” said Ms. Sung, an office worker in Seoul, the capital. The one consolation, she said, was that she did not need surgery urgently.

For more than two months, South Korea’s health care system has been in disarray because thousands of doctors walked off the job after the government proposed to drastically increase medical school admissions. While the disruptions have not yet reached crisis levels, thousands of operations and treatments have been delayed or canceled, nurses have had to take on more responsibilities, and military hospitals have been opened to civilians. Several major hospitals this week are planning to suspend outpatient clinics.

The protracted stalemate shows no signs of resolution. But one thing has changed: Public opinion has turned against the government of President Yoon Suk Yeol. A majority of respondents in a recent poll said that the government should negotiate with the doctors to reach an agreement quickly or withdraw its proposal.

“When the protests first started, I couldn’t really feel it,” said Lee Seung-ku, a university student in Seoul, adding “I don’t have anyone around me that frequents the hospital.” But as the walkout dragged on, he said that he heard about acquaintances struggling to get care and felt that the government was not acting fast enough to reach an agreement with doctors.

For weeks neither side budged.

The chaos was set off by a government plan to address a longstanding shortage of doctors in South Korea by enrolling more students in medical schools — about 2,000, or 65 percent, more every year. It would be the first increase in enrollment in nearly two decades. To the authorities, the proposal filled a critical need for the country’s rapidly aging population. But doctors contended that the government was continuing to ignore systemic issues like uneven compensation that make essential services like emergency care unappealing career choices.

At first, most citizens supported Mr. Yoon’s hard-line stance, which helped to increase his popularity ahead of crucial parliamentary elections. Some observers believed that the impasse would end soon after the April 9 vote. But the results of the elections left Mr. Yoon on the verge of becoming a lame duck, and, soon after, his approval rating sank to the lowest of his presidency.

About two weeks ago, the government made its first concession, saying medical schools would have some leeway in deciding their admission quotas for the school year that begins in March 2025. In effect, the authorities were offering to scale down their original proposal of adding 2,000 seats to medical schools by as much as 50 percent for the next school year for 32 medical schools.

“They’re trying to mend the situation, but it’s not working in their favor,” said Mr. Lee, the university student. “The steps they’re taking now, it’s what they should already have been doing in the first place.”

The impasse persists. More than 10,000 residents and interns, who are key to the running of large hospitals and were the first to walk out, remain off the job. Last week, medical school professors, who are often senior doctors in hospitals, joined the protests in solidarity but continue to work reduced hours.

South Korea has long taken pride in its affordable health care system, but many doctors say they are overwhelmed by long working hours coupled with low pay. The system, they add, rewards specializations such as dermatology that are not essential to the everyday health of most people.

Emergency room doctors have long complained that they are overwhelmed by patients with minor injuries or illnesses, saying they suck up already limited resources. That strain seemed to have intensified during the doctors walkout. At least two emergency care deaths were first attributed in local media to the strike, but the health ministry said they were not caused by shortages from the walkout.

At the same time, some patients — presumably with minor issues — are staying home.

“Ironically, the number of patients has decreased in some hospitals,” said Seo Yeonjoo, a doctor in the emergency department at St. Vincent Hospital on the outskirts of Seoul, referring to people seeking urgent care.

Some with more serious conditions also are avoiding hospitals.

Samuel Kim, who attends nursing school at Kyungpook National University in the city of Daegu, has put off his own visits to the hospital for checkups for his arrhythmia. He said he feels a sense of societal pressure that he shouldn’t be visiting hospitals at a time when many of them are struggling because of the doctors’ walkout.

Mr. Kim acknowledged the grueling hours some doctors work, conditions that he said he had witnessed firsthand as a nursing student. Still, he believes that the doctors should hash out an agreement with the government and return to work.

“There are strikes in other industries, too, like bus drivers,” Mr. Kim said, “but with doctors, people’s lives are at stake.”

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