Why doctors oppose Nursing Act legislation

Members of the Korea Nurses Association and the Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union stage a rally in Jongno District, Seoul, May 12, calling for legislation of the Nursing Act. Korea Times photo by Choi Joo-yeon

Nurses demand separate law stipulating their roles and duties

By Lee Hyo-jin

The legislation of a new law called the Nursing Act, to specify the roles of nurses, has emerged as a hot-button issue in the medical community. Nurses and doctors are sharply divided over the bill, and the standoff between the two groups is escalating.

The Korea Medical Association (KMA) and the Korea Nurses Association (KNA) are each staging multiple rallies, with the former attempting to block lawmakers from enacting the law, and the latter calling for swift legislation.

What is the Nursing Act?

The Nursing Act, proposed by Rep. Kim Min-seok of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, along with two other similar bills, proposed by Rep. Seo Jeong-suk and Rep. Choi Yeon-suk of the ruling People Power Party, is currently being discussed at the National Assembly.

Though they may differ in detail, the aim of these bills is to designate the roles and duties of nurses by law and to provide a legal basis to improve their working conditions.

The KNA, which represents about 460,000 licensed nurses across the country ― a figure that amounts to triple the number of doctors ― argues that nurses have long been suffering from poor working conditions due to the absence of a separate law stipulating the specific roles and duties of professional nurses.

Currently, the legal role of a nurse is stipulated in the Medical Services Act, which states that they should provide healthcare services "under the guidance of physicians."

According to the nurses' group, this law views nurses as being subordinate to physicians rather than recognizing them as medical professionals. Moreover, due to ambiguities in the current law, many nurses are forced to perform duties outside of their job descriptions, often leading to overwork and difficulty in providing quality care for patients.

For this reason, the nurses have been calling for a separate law defining the legal roles of nurses, citing the growing importance of professional nurses for Korea's aging society and to prepare for future health crises.

The KNA argued that Korea is one of the few OECD member countries without a separate law defining the roles of nurses, compared with other countries such as the United States, Canada, Germany and the United Kingdom that have such laws.

'Evil law'

Members of the Korea Medical Association stage a rally in central Seoul, May 15, to protest the legislation of the Nursing Act. Yonhap

On the other hand, doctors called the Nursing Act "an evil law," claiming that its enactment may allow nurses to intervene in the duties of physicians, causing confusion in hospitals, which may threaten patients' safety.

Unlike the current medical law which stipulates that nurses should provide care to patients by "assisting" doctors, the amendment says that nurses should perform their duties "in accordance with the patients' needs." Thus, the doctors worry that the bill, if passed, may even create a legal basis for nurses to open their own clinics.

"The Nursing Act is an irrational law that could harm public health and lead to the collapse of the country's healthcare system. The bills are aimed only at providing benefits to nurses. It is not appropriate to offer privileges only to a certain group of medical professionals," said Lee Pil-soo, head of KMA, during a rally held on May 15.

Insisting that the law, if enacted, would put nurses in a higher position than other medical workers such as assistant nurses, care workers at nursing homes, or paramedics, the doctors called on other healthcare workers to join their collective action.

The KMA denounced lawmakers who are pushing ahead with the legislation without properly reviewing the details of the bills. The KMA warned that if the bills are passed at the plenary session, its 140,000 members across the country will step up their protests, reminding many of the nationwide strike by doctors in August 2020, which they had organized in protest against the government's medical reform bills.

But so far, the situation has developed more favorably for the nurses.

The Health and Welfare Committee at the National Assembly approved the amendment of the Nursing Act, May 17. If it gets approved by the Legislative and Judiciary Committee, it will be put to vote at a plenary session.

The approval by the welfare committee did not come as a big surprise, as Rep. Kim Min-seok of the DPK, who chairs the committee, had openly criticized the doctors' collective action.

"The doctors are opposed to the legislation of the Nursing Act, which only adds to their previous irrational protests over some issues that have already gained public support, such as the installation of surveillance cameras in operating rooms," he wrote on Facebook, May 15, calling on the doctors to refrain from collective action which goes against public opinion.
Lee Hyo-jin lhj@koreatimes.co.kr

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