Operations cancelled as South Korea doctors’ strike grows

SEOUL  -  Pregnant women had C-sections cancelled and cancer treatments were postponed Wednesday as the number of South Korean trainee doc­tors to walk off the job over proposed reforms swelled, officials and lo­cal reports said.

More than 8,800 junior doctors -- 71 percent of the trainee workforce -- have now quit, said Seoul’s Sec­ond Vice Health Minis­ter Park Min-soo, part of a spiralling protest against government plans to sharply in­crease medical school admissions.

Seoul says the re­forms are essential, cit­ing the country’s low doctor numbers and rapidly ageing popula­tion, but doctors claim the changes will hurt service provision and education quality.

Critics say doctors are mainly concerned the reform could erode their salaries and social prestige, and the plan enjoys broad public support among South Koreans, especially those in remote areas where quality service is often inaccessible.

Park said Wednesday that 7,813 trainee doc­tors had not shown up for work -- an almost five-fold increase from the first day of the ac­tion Monday -- despite the government order­ing many of them to re­turn to their hospitals.

“The basic calling of medical professionals is to protect the health and lives of the people, and any group action that threatens this cannot be justified,” Park said. The doctors’ walkout was a violation of South Korean law, as medical workers cannot refuse so-called return to work orders “without justifi­able grounds”, he said.

South Korea’s general hospitals rely heavily on trainees for emergency operations and surger­ies, and local reports said cancer patients and expectant mothers needing C-sections had seen procedures can­celled or delayed, with scores of cases causing “damage”, Park said.

Hong Jae-ryun, a brain cancer patient in his 50s from Daegu, said that his chemotherapy had been postponed without clear future dates due to the current situation, even though the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver.

“It’s absurd. In the midst of the conflict be­tween the government and doctors, what can powerless patients say? It feels like a betrayal,” Hong told AFP. “When there is no one to trust and rely on other than doctors, it seems exces­sive to handle things in this manner.”

A group of patients with severe illnesses, in­cluding cancer and amy­otrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), said they were en­during “terribly painful days”. “We are desperate for every minute and ev­ery second. Severely ill patients need treatment right away,” they said in a statement sent to AFP.

“We earnestly ask that trainee doctors who have left the hospital re­turn to the medical field as soon as possible.”

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