The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Turning point

SNUH decides to end indefinite walkout; Committee formed for possible talks

By Korea Herald

Published : June 24, 2024 - 05:30

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The abrasive confrontation between the Yoon Suk Yeol administration and doctors over the increase in the medical school enrollment quota faces a turning point after medical professors at the hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University decided to end their collective action and a new body representing more doctors was launched.

Medical professors who serve as senior doctors at Seoul National University Hospital announced Friday that they would end an indefinite walkout amid mounting concerns about the negative impact on many patients, including those suffering from severe illnesses.

The senior doctors at SNUH and its three affiliates went on a strike in a show of support for junior doctors who have been off the job since February in protest of the government’s decision to boost the medical school admission quota as part of medical reforms.

Around 530 senior doctors, or 54.8 percent of the total, joined the collective action, a move that sparked worries among patients, their family members and government officials since the SNUH holds a significant symbolic status as the country’s top general hospital.

In a vote on whether to continue the walkout, over 70 percent of 948 SNUH doctors said they should resume their work for the sake of the patients and try to find other “sustainable ways” of protest against the government, its emergency response committee said.

The decision by the SNUH hospitals was inevitable in consideration of worsening responses from the public and a negative court decision last week. Although their walkout did not affect the operation of emergency rooms or treatment for critically ill patients, public opinion was unfavorable to the potential for putting patients at risk.

Angered by the protracted walkout of junior doctors that has resulted in a frustrating medical service disruption, an association of patients’ groups said Friday they would hold a massive rally on July 4 to call on doctors to end their strike and push the government to work on new legislation aimed at preventing similar collective actions by doctors.

On Wednesday, the Supreme Court upheld a lower court's decision that rejected an injunction request from the medical community to stop the government’s plan to increase the medical school enrollment quota. The ruling effectively supports the government’s policy on its medical reform and the quota increase.

The end of a walkout at the SNUH hospitals is now expected to affect other teaching major hospitals known as the “Big Five.” Medical professors at Yonsei University’s College of Medicine are scheduled to go on strike from Thursday, while Asan Medical Center in Seoul has planned a walkout from July 4 to last for a week.

Attention is now placed on whether the government could restart full-fledged negotiations with the Korea Medical Association, the country’s biggest lobby group for doctors, which organized a one-day walkout and rally on Tuesday last week. The KMA formed a special committee encompassing medical professors, specialist doctors and regional representatives and held its first meeting Saturday.

“We welcome the government’s position in favor of talks regardless of format and agenda,” the special committee said, raising hopes that long-awaited talks between government officials and doctors may resume.

But a skeptical outlook remains.

The Korea Intern Resident Association decided not to join the KMA-led special committee, and the junior doctors are also showing no sign of returning to their workplaces despite repeated appeals from the government.

The long-drawn-out clash between the government and doctors must stop now to ensure a reliable medical service for the public. To that end, the government and the medical community are urged to talk with each other to work on critical policy issues other than the finalized medical school quota -- the first step needed to restore public trust of the embattled medical service system.