Many people criticize the president as South Korean doctors’ strike continues

Eun Sung fell in March and injured her right thumb, requiring surgery to repair a torn ligament. However, even though he lives in South Korea, one of the most developed countries in the world, it was difficult to organize his schedule.

“It’s very difficult to get an appointment, and I was told that the earliest the surgery would be possible would be January next year,” said Song, an office worker in the capital Seoul. Her only consolation, she said, was that surgery was not urgently needed.

South Korea’s healthcare system has been in turmoil for more than two months, with thousands of doctors quitting their jobs after the government proposed a significant increase in medical school admissions. Although the disruption has not yet reached crisis levels, thousands of surgeries and treatments have been postponed or canceled, nurses have had to take on more responsibilities, and military hospitals have been opened to civilians. Several major hospitals plan to suspend outpatient services this week.

The prolonged stalemate shows no signs of resolving. However, one thing has changed. Public opinion has turned against the government of President Yoon Seok-yeol. The majority of respondents recent opinion polls He said the government should negotiate with doctors and quickly reach an agreement or withdraw the proposal.

Lee Seung-koo, a university student in Seoul, said, “When the protests first started, I didn’t really feel it,” adding, “No one around me goes to the hospital often.” But as the strike dragged on, he said he heard stories of people he knew who were struggling to access medical treatment and felt the government was not acting quickly enough to reach an agreement with doctors.

For weeks neither side moved.

The turmoil began with the government’s plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical schools by 65%, or about 2,000 students, each year to address South Korea’s longstanding shortage of doctors. This is the first increase in enrollment in about 20 years. For authorities, the proposal met a critical need for the country’s rapidly aging population. But doctors argued that the government continued to ignore systemic issues such as unequal pay, making essential services such as emergency medicine an unattractive career choice.

At first, most people supported Yun’s hard-line stance, which boosted his popularity ahead of important parliamentary elections. Some observers believed the impasse would end soon after the April 9 vote. However, the election results left Mr. Yoon on the verge of becoming a lame duck, and his approval ratings declined soon after. sank to the bottom about his time as president.

About two weeks ago, the government made its first concession, saying medical schools would have some leeway in determining admissions for the academic year starting in March 2025. In effect, officials were offering to scale back from their original proposal to add 2,000 people. Thirty-two medical schools will see their medical capacity reduced by up to 50 percent next year.

“They’re trying to improve the situation, but it’s not working in their favor,” said Lee, a university student. “The steps they’re taking now are things they should have already been doing in the first place.”

The impasse continues. More than 10,000 interns and interns, who are key to the operation of major hospitals and were the first to retire, remain out of work. Last week, medical school professors, who are often senior doctors at hospitals, joined the protests in solidarity but continue to work reduced hours.

South Korea has long prided itself on its affordable health care system, but many doctors say they feel overwhelmed by long working hours coupled with low pay. They added that the system rewards specialties that are not essential to most people’s daily health, such as dermatology.

Emergency room doctors have long complained that they are overwhelmed with patients with minor injuries and illnesses, using up already limited resources. Tensions appear to have intensified during the doctors’ strike. Local media initially reported that at least two paramedic deaths were caused by the strike, but the Ministry of Health said the strike was not the cause.

At the same time, patients with perhaps milder problems are also staying at home.

“Ironically, some hospitals are seeing a decline in the number of patients,” said Seo Young-joo, a doctor at the emergency department of St. Vincent Hospital on the outskirts of Seoul, regarding people seeking emergency treatment.

People with more serious symptoms are also avoiding hospitals.

Samuel Kim, a student at Kyungpook National University School of Nursing in Daegu, has postponed his hospital visit to be checked for arrhythmia. He said he feels social pressure not to visit hospitals at a time when many of them are suffering due to doctors’ strikes.

Kim acknowledged that some doctors work grueling hours, something she said she witnessed firsthand when she was a nursing student. Still, he believes doctors should rush to reach an agreement with the government and get back to work.

“There are strikes in other industries, such as bus drivers, but in the case of doctors, people’s lives are at risk,” Kim said.

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