South Korea raises health alert to 'severe' over protest by doctors

By Reuters   February 22, 2024 | 08:34 pm PT
South Korea raises health alert to 'severe' over protest by doctors
Medical staff at a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 19, 2024. Photo by Reuters
South Korea has raised its health alert as of Friday morning after thousands of doctors walked off the job this week to protest against a government plan to raise the number of medical school admissions, the health ministry said.

"We've decided to raise the healthcare disaster risk alert from cautious to severe," the ministry said in a statement late on Thursday, citing an "intensifying" walkout by resident doctors and concerns over public health.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo will preside over a disaster management meeting on the matter on Friday, the ministry said.

Emergency departments in South Korea's biggest hospitals have been squeezed since trainee doctors began leaving the job this week in protest at government plans to increase medical school admissions to bolster the healthcare sector.

The protests by almost two-thirds of the country's young doctors has forced hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures, raising fears about further disruption to the medical system should the dispute drag on.

The doctors say the real issue is pay and working conditions, not the number of physicians.

Senior doctors and members of the Korean Medical Association, which represents physicians in private practice, have not joined the trainee doctors in the walkout but held rallies demanding the government scrap its plan.

A large rally is expected in Seoul on Sunday.

The prime minister again pleaded with young doctors to not make the wrong choice that would forever tarnish the sacrifice and dedication they showed during the Covid-19 pandemic that had earned them the respect of the public.

He also called on the medical community to stop "pushing young doctors" and said the government is always open to dialogue.

Many Koreans support the government's plan to increase medical school admissions, with a recent Gallup Korea poll showing about 76% of respondents in favor, regardless of political affiliation.

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