South Korean doctor dies, reportedly from overwork, as strike piles more pressure on healthcare system

A South Korean ophthalmologist who shared the workload at Pusan National University Hospital’s emergency department has reportedly died from exhaustion, piling more pressure on a health system overwhelmed by a weeks-long junior doctors’ strike that shows no sign of abating.

Police said first responders found the doctor unconscious in his Busan home last weekend and rushed him to a nearby hospital, where he was declared dead.

The force added an autopsy would be conducted to ascertain the exact cause of the man’s death, but it “appears to have been caused by heart failure due to a stroke”.

Medical workers walk outside a hospital in Seoul, South Korea, on March 19. Photo: TNS

He had also complained of fatigue after performing night duties and emergency surgeries following last month’s walkout by thousands of interns and resident doctors to protest against the government’s plan to boost medical school admissions.

“For a month, medical school professors at university hospitals have taken on duties that are normally done by trainee doctors while also doing their own work,” said Oh Sae-ock from the Medical Professors Association of Pusan National University.

Police said they would contact the university to check if overwork played a role in the doctor’s death, which came as second vice-health minister Park Min-soo on Tuesday said 2,000 more seats would be added to medical schools by May, The Korea Herald reported.

“The government will complete follow-up measures within May without a hitch,” Park said, urging doctors to hold talks “without conditions”.

South Korean second vice-health minister Park Min-soo says an extra 2,000 seats will be added to medical schools by May. Photo: AP

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration says the proposal is aimed at fixing a shortage of doctors in one of the world’s fastest-ageing societies, but junior medics argue their pay and working conditions need to be improved first.

On Monday, professors at 19 of the country’s 40 medical schools began tendering their resignations en masse in support of the strike that has caused hundreds of cancelled surgeries and other treatments at hospitals.

The government earlier said it would suspend the licences of striking junior doctors after they missed the February 29 deadline to return to work.

South Korea doctors ask ILO to intervene as strike shows no signs of ending

But in a sign of a possible climbdown, officials said the punitive measure would be tentatively delayed as Yoon asked Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to pursue “a flexible measure” to resolve the dispute and seek constructive dialogue with doctors.

The Medical Professors Association of Korea insisted scrapping the initiative was the way forward.

“If the government has an intention of withdrawing its plan or has an intention of considering it, we’re ready to discuss all pending issues with the government before the public,” said Kim Chang-soo, head of the group.

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