South Korea doctors' strike set to cripple hospitals
By Suk Gee-hyun, The Korea Herald/Asia News Network
March 10, 2014, 12:10 am TWN
The country's largest group of doctors said Sunday it would go ahead with a scheduled one-day strike Monday to protest the government's plan to introduce telemedicine and for-profit subsidiaries of hospitals.
"We doctors have made a very difficult decision to shut doors and refuse treatment (of patients). We can only blame the government in making such a radical choice," said Roh Hwan-kyu, president of the Korea Medical Association, in a press conference in Seoul on Sunday.
Doctors affiliated with the KMA had previously said that they would close their clinics and refuse to accept patients from 8 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Monday.
The doctors' group said it would continue to launch a partial strike from March 11-23 and a full strike from March 24-29. Emergency and intensive care staff will not join Monday's walkout, the group said.
The KMA represents more than two-thirds of medical doctors in Korea, with a membership of 70,000 doctors. This will be the first doctors' strike since the 2000 walkout, when the government separated pharmacies from hospitals.
The KMA said they did not know the exact number of doctors who planned to participate in the protest. But the strike is expected to cripple the nation's health services, as not only doctors at local clinics but also medical residents at teaching hospitals across the country have agreed to join the move.
Interns and residents at major hospitals, including Severance Hospital, Korea University Medical Center, Chung-Ang University Hospital and Gachon University Gil Medical Center, also announced Sunday their participation in the strike.
With doctors pressing ahead with their protest plans, the government warned of consequences for doctors who shut their clinics.
"We will act sternly against doctors who stage an illegal walkout and take citizens hostage," Prime Minister Chung Hong-won said in a policy meeting on Sunday.
Opposition leaders also expressed concern over the strike, stressing that actions that put patients' lives at risk could not be justified.
"We demand the government form a communication channel with medical entities and experts to expand public medical services and improve the system," Reps. Kim Han-gil and Ahn Cheol-soo — the co-chiefs of a committee to launch a new opposition party — said in a joint press conference on Sunday.
In January, the lobby group threatened to go on strike out of fear of losing patients to larger hospitals if the government allows telemedicine services and for-profit hospitals.
The government believes that telemedicine will help patients get more convenient clinical diagnoses using telecommunications.
Doctors of smaller clinics, however, fear that they would lose patients to bigger hospitals. The service would undermine the quality of medical services, they claimed.
They also stressed that the bigger problem was in setting up subsidiaries engaging in for-profit businesses, saying it would result in hospitals becoming profit-oriented entities rather than focusing on patient treatment.