Vietnamese doctors under pressure during South Korean strikes

By Thuc Linh   March 15, 2024 | 03:19 pm PT
In South Korea, Vietnamese doctors are facing unprecedented challenges amid a nationwide doctors' strike, grappling with long hours and a healthcare system in crisis.

After a 12-hour shift at Seoul National University (SNU) Hospital, Nguyen hurriedly eats a bowl of rice and then stays up late into the night to finish her assignments.

This has been her routine for the past three weeks, and since she came to South Korea in 2022, Nguyen said she has never been busier or under more stress.

At the teaching hospital, doctor Luong Pham Hanh Nguyen, 36, has been tasked with assisting in examinations, recording medical histories, and participating in consultations.

Her schedule and activities were once stable, typically starting from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. with a one-hour lunch break. Then, she had all evening for herself.

But since Feb. 20, when a collective strike of resident doctors commenced, SNU, one of the country's most prestigious medical institutions, was among the most affected. It is a renowned teaching hospital that combines patient care and treatment with the training of resident doctors.

For nearly a month now, resident doctors and interns have left their jobs, leaving all their work for others.

These days, it is normal for Nguyen to work nonstop for 15-16 hours.

She has skipped lunch more than often and has been assigned tasks she has never done before. There is no choice: she has to be available or patients will not get treated.

"This is now a common situation for doctors in my department: Overworked. There are professors who, despite being sick, still try to come and work because if they take a break, there would be no one to treat the patients," Nguyen said.

Doctor doctor Luong Pham Hanh Nguyen. Photo by Nguyen

Doctor Luong Pham Hanh Nguyen of Seoul National University Hospital in South Korea. Photo courtesy of Luong Pham Hanh Nguyen

Currently, the conflict between the government and striking doctors has become more tense as authorities began taking a series of administrative steps on March 4 to suspend the strikers' licenses.

The steps include dispatching officials to confirm the absences of the strikers, sending notices about the planned suspensions, and giving them opportunities to respond before the license suspensions take effect. Officials have said the striking doctors would face minimum three-month license suspensions and prosecutions, according to AP.

So far, no suspensions have been reported as completed yet.

By Wednesday, more than 90% of the country's 13,000 trainee doctors walked off the job in a wave of mass resignations to protest the government's decision to increase enrollment at medical schools.

In early February, South Korea's government said it would increase the country's medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 starting next year, from the current cap of 3,058 that has been unchanged since 2006.

According to the government, the country has one of the lowest ratios of doctors to the population among developed nations, indicating a need for more medical professionals to tackle the persistent lack of doctors in rural regions and in crucial, yet underpaid, medical fields.

However, doctors argue that new graduates will likely seek employment in the capital area and in lucrative specialties such as plastic surgery and dermatology, further stating that the government's strategy may lead to medical practitioners offering unnecessary procedures due to heightened competition.

Their walkouts now threaten to enter a critical phase as senior doctors at the SNU and its affiliated hospitals decided on March 11 to resign en mass if the government does not come up with measures that can address the dispute by early next week. Senior doctors at other major university hospitals could take similar steps.

"If the government doesn't take steps toward sincere, reasonable measures to resolve the issue, we will decide to submit resignations starting March 18," said Bang JaeSeung, leader of the Seoul hospital's emergency committee, AP reported.

South Korean doctors protest the governments plan to raise the annual enrolment quota at medical schools in Seoul, March 3, 2024. Photo by AFP

South Korean doctors protest the government's plan to raise the annual enrolment quota at medical schools in Seoul, March 3, 2024. Photo by AFP

At Bundang Hospital under Seoul University, doctor Nguyen Hai Dang (name changed) from the Department of Surgery, has also been affected by the crisis.

Having been in South Korea for two months, Dang was eager to learn and gain as much clinical experience as possible from the doctors here. However, after many medical staff at Bundang Hospital went on strike, the training process has changed.

Dang says the patient influx at Bundang remains high, but due to the lack of staff who are needed to assist during an operation, the professors have not been able perform many surgeries.

Previously, the Surgery Department conducted an average of 30 to 40 surgeries per day, divided among three to four operating rooms.

Now, the number of surgeries has decreased to only two to three per day. More specialized departments like neurosurgery are not performing any surgeries at all.

As a result, Dang has not had the chance to practice on a patient in a real-life situation.

Dang said that if the hospital were operating normally, "I would have been able to help the professors prepare medical records, consult, assist in surgery, among many other tasks," adding that he now feels "disappointed and unfortunate."

Despite what they are put through now, both Nguyen and Dang said they understand the decision to strike by their colleagues.

Nguyen said most of the striking doctors are attending doctors working 80 to 100 hours per week. Sometimes, they only go home to sleep for about two hours, then return to the hospital and continue working the next morning and they are usually "very tired and stressed."

Nguyen Phuong Thuy, a PhD student in the Department of Microbiology - Immunology, School of Medicine at SNU Hospital shared the same opinion.

She said South Korea often lacks doctors in essential specialties, also known as attending doctors. Medical school graduates tend to choose dermatology and cosmetic surgery, which offer lighter workload and higher salaries.

Therefore, if the number of doctor quotas is increased, the competition in those sectors will be even much higher, yet essential specialties will still suffer from a shortage of doctors.

From this reality, the striking doctors expect that the government will increase benefits for essential healthcare workers and increase investment in modern equipment and machinery for public hospitals instead of creating a rush into "trendy sectors."

The South Korean government has decided to provide 94.8 billion won (US$72.2 million) to public hospitals this year to address the prolonged manpower shortage.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare on Wednesday called on medical professors not to resign, adding that the government is ready to negotiate to resolve the crisis.

In the meantime, Nguyen and Dang encourage themselves every day to diligently study and research, sacrificing their time and effort to support their hospitals.

"If I also take leave, who will treat the patients?" Nguyen said, expressing her hope that her colleagues will quickly return to work, and the South Korean government will make decisions to turn the situation around, so that patients are not affected.

The medical community's objections have not garnered sympathy from the public. Critics argue that doctors, being among the highest earners in South Korea, are primarily concerned with the potential decline in their future earnings.

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