Patients brace for resignations of medical professors, weekly shutdowns

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A statement by an emergency committee of the Seoul National University (SNU) medical professors’ council is posted at SNU Hospital in Seoul, Wednesday, as the group announced its decision  to suspend treating patients, apart from inpatients and those in emergency or critical condition, on April 30, amid a prolonged government-doctor confrontation over  medical school quota hikes. Yonhap

A statement by an emergency committee of the Seoul National University (SNU) medical professors’ council is posted at SNU Hospital in Seoul, Wednesday, as the group announced its decision to suspend treating patients, apart from inpatients and those in emergency or critical condition, on April 30, amid a prolonged government-doctor confrontation over medical school quota hikes. Yonhap

Prolonged medical standoff makes patients feel like hostages

By Jun Ji-hye

Patients are growing increasingly anxious as medical professors vow to resign or suspend treating patients once a week, amid a protracted health care standoff with the government over the Yoon Suk Yeol administration’s plan to increase the medical school admissions quota starting next year.

Last month, medical professors, serving as the most senior and fully trained doctors at Korean hospitals, submitted letters of resignation. This action was in solidarity with the walkout staged by over 90 percent of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors, who have been protesting the government’s plan since Feb. 20. These professors are responsible for teaching students and training future doctors while simultaneously providing patient care.

The collective decision to abstain from treating patients once a week is raising concerns that already significant disruptions in hospital operations could escalate further.

Kim, a mother of a 27-month-old daughter, is among the patients and their families who feel vulnerable amid the escalating government-doctor confrontation.

Her daughter, suffering from kidney disease, has been under treatment at Seoul National University (SNU) Hospital. However, the two pediatricians overseeing her care recently announced their intention to resign in the coming months. They urged parents to look for other hospitals to treat their children.

Kim said she can’t shake the feeling that her sick daughter is being held hostage.

“I couldn’t discern any sense of duty or responsibility in the doctor’s demeanor when she advised me to seek care elsewhere,” she said.

“If my daughter is transferred, we’ll have to restart numerous tests from scratch. It feels like both my daughter and I are left to handle all of this alone.”

She highlighted that it was unreasonable for the hospital to request 70,000 won ($51) to issue the documents required for her daughter’s transfer.

“I never intended to transfer my daughter, but I felt compelled to do so. But the hospital still requested payment for the necessary documents,” she said.

The Korea Alliance of Patients Organization also issued a statement, urging the medical professors to continue providing treatment.

The concerns came as medical professors at some schools already decided or are moving to suspend treating patients once a week, including those at the medical school of SNU and its affiliated hospital, one of the country’s top five largest medical centers.

Bang Jae-seung, who heads the emergency committee of the SNU medical professors’ council, announced Wednesday that they would refrain from treating patients on April 30, with exceptions made for inpatients and those in emergency or critical condition. He said the committee will continue to review whether to take a day off every week.

“The decision on the shutdown on April 30 has been made to heal our bodies and minds distressed from continued overwork that has lasted for more than two months (since trainee doctors walked off their jobs),” Bang said during a news conference.

He pointed out that SNU professors began submitting letters of resignation on March 25, and each one will take effect 30 days after submission. This implies that some professors are prepared to leave their jobs as early as Thursday.

Bang Jae-seung, who heads the emergency committee of the Seoul National University (SNU) medical professors’ council, speaks during a news conference at a SNU's medical school building in central Seoul, Wednesday, while a doctor looks on. Yonhap

Bang Jae-seung, who heads the emergency committee of the Seoul National University (SNU) medical professors’ council, speaks during a news conference at a SNU’s medical school building in central Seoul, Wednesday, while a doctor looks on. Yonhap

The professors who submitted their resignation letters believe that their departure will be processed automatically, citing a relevant clause in the civil law. However, the government disagrees with this interpretation.

Professors at the University of Ulsan and its affiliated training hospital, Asan Medical Center, have similarly declared their intention to resign, beginning Thursday. Those unable to resign from the hospital immediately will observe a day off every week starting from May 3.

“We have no choice but to reschedule treatments and surgeries due to the mental and physical limitations of professors,” they said in a statement.

In a similar move, professors at Chungnam National University Hospital in Daejeon agreed not to receive outpatients every Friday, beginning this week, while those at Wonkwang University Hospital in North Jeolla Province will suspend surgery every Friday from this week and suspend treatments of outpatients every Friday starting next week.

Despite the planned weekly shutdown, all of those hospitals will continue treatments or surgeries for patients in emergency or critical condition. However, this understandably fails to alleviate concerns among patients and their families, especially with the looming possibility of other major hospitals across the country joining the shutdown.

On Tuesday, an emergency committee of medical professors at 20 schools nationwide said after their meeting that they will go ahead with their plan to resign regardless of the government’s intention to accept their resignations.

They also announced that they will have a day off sometime next week, and further discussions regarding plans for regular weekly breaks will take place at another meeting.

The government, on its part, expressed regret over the latest decision, urging the professors to engage in dialogue rather than resort to collective action.

During a media briefing, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo reiterated that the resignations will not be processed automatically.

“According to due procedures, there haven’t been many resignation letters submitted, and universities currently have no plans to accept them,” Park said.


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