Looming weekly closure of major hospitals feared to worsen medical service crisis

April 24, 2024

More medical professors affiliated with major hospitals in South Korea are considering taking weekly breaks amid the prolonged walkout by trainee doctors, officials said Wednesday, sparking fears of exacerbating the country’s health care crisis and financial difficulties of hospitals.

Earlier in the day, an emergency committee of medical professors of Seoul National University (SNU) announced the decision to halt treatments for patients on April 30, except for operations of emergency rooms and intensive care units, and will continue discussions on whether to take a day off on a regular basis.

Professors of the University of Ulsan College of Medicine, who serve as senior doctors at Seoul’s Asan Medical Center, also decided to take a weekly day off starting May 3.

Medical professors who work for Samsung Medical Center, Severance Hospital and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital are also reviewing whether to take the same step.

“Internal discussions are now under way. We’ve yet to make a final decision,” an official of the emergency committee of the School of Medicine of Sungkyunkwan University said. Professors here mostly work at Samsung Medical Center.

The professors, who serve as senior doctors at major hospitals, have been struggling to fill the void of junior doctors, as most of them have left their worksites since Feb. 20 in protest of the government’s plan to boost the number of medical students by 2,000 starting next year.

The current quota was set at 3,058, and the government and doctors have yet to find a breakthrough.

Professors have said that the decision to suspend hospital operations was inevitable as they have experienced “extreme” stress and burnout amid heavy workloads.

The move is also seen as a way of adding pressure on the government to seek a breakthrough as the plan on the medical school admission quota for next year is supposed to be finalized by end-April.

A doctor enters a building of the Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul on April 23, 2024. (Yonhap)
A doctor enters a building of the Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul on April 23, 2024. (Yonhap)

The five major hospitals in Seoul play a key role in the country’s medical services and their weekly suspension is feared to further disrupt the situation, as they have already cut their surgeries and other treatments for patients markedly following the trainee doctors’ walkout.

“Hospitals are trying to adjust schedules to minimize the impact on patients,” a hospital official said.

The planned move will also worsen financial difficulties of major hospitals, which have been struggling with snowballing losses over the walkout.

The gross income of 50 hospitals with trainee doctors in the country fell by 423.8 billion won (US$309.29 million) during February and March, data showed.

The hospitals have been in an emergency management mode to overcome the crisis by closing part of their wards on a temporary basis and securing credit facility for overdraft.

The government plans to set up a special presidential commission on medical reform this week for talks with the medical community and find a solution, while allowing universities to decide their quotas by a range of 50 to 100 percent of what the government assigned for next year.

But doctors have rejected the proposals, calling for the government to revisit the issue from scratch.

Since March 25, medical professors nationwide have submitted their resignations, which could take legal effect after the elapse of one month even without approval from their employers.

The education ministry, however, has said “not many” professors have tendered resignations, and no resignations have been accepted so far.