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Gov't issues trainee doctors ultimatum to return to hospitals by Thursday

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A medical professional wheels a patient on a gurney in a surgery area of a hospital in Daegu, Monday. Yonhap

A medical professional wheels a patient on a gurney in a surgery area of a hospital in Daegu, Monday. Yonhap

'Suspension of licenses, indictments inevitable from March'
By Jun Ji-hye

The government issued an ultimatum to junior doctors on Monday, stating that those who return to work by Thursday will not face accountability. This comes after interns and resident doctors submitted their resignations and went on strike last week to protest the government's proposal to increase the annual quota of medical school enrollments.

Interior Minister Lee Sang-min urged junior doctors to recognize the severity of the current situation, highlighting instances where patients are essentially held hostage and are experiencing delays and disruptions in necessary medical procedures.

The government has asserted that the collective action taken by the doctors is illegal, a stance that the doctors themselves refute.

"Patients' lives and health are under threat due to intensifying confusion caused by trainee doctors' collective action," Lee said during a government meeting.

The government said junior doctors who return to work by Thursday "will not be held accountable for their violation of the relevant law."

"In accordance with laws and principles, license suspensions for at least three months and judicial process including investigations and indictments will be inevitable, beginning in March, for those who do not return," Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said during a media briefing.

"The license suspension goes on one's permanent record and could affect his or her attempt to get a job in other countries. Striking doctors should bear this in mind," Park added.

A fierce standoff has ensued between the government and doctors since authorities announced plans on Feb. 6 to increase the annual enrollment quota at 40 medical schools nationwide. The proposal aims to raise the quota from the current 3,058 to 5,058 starting next year.

In protest, trainee doctors at major hospitals across the country began submitting resignations since Feb. 19. According to the Ministry of Health and Welfare, 10,034 junior doctors, or 80.5 percent of all such physicians, have submitted their resignations as of Friday. Among them, 9,006 have actually left their worksites.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo speaks during a briefing at Government Complex Sejong, Monday. Yonhap

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo speaks during a briefing at Government Complex Sejong, Monday. Yonhap

The government issued the ultimatum, suggesting the last day of February as a deadline, as concerns are rising that the situation could grow worse if medical fellows join the collective action by refusing to renew their contracts and opting to leave hospitals.

Fellows are doctors who are undergoing specialized training after completing a residency and have filled the medical service vacuum left by striking trainee doctors. Generally, they renew their contracts annually at the end of February.

Considering the government's warning of severe consequences for doctors involved in collective action, punitive measures are expected to be enforced, potentially including license revocations, if trainee doctors do not adhere to the ultimatum.

The government already announced a decision to dispatch prosecutors to the health ministry to seek advice on legal grounds and promptly take judicial action against collective action.

During a weekly meeting with his senior secretaries, President Yoon Suk Yeol also said, "Providing timely and proper medical treatment to sick people is at the core of welfare and constitutional responsibility of the state," according to presidential spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung.

The president's remarks were interpreted as a means of exerting further pressure on striking trainee doctors and reaffirming the government's determination to take decisive action against those involved in collective action.

The health ministry stressed that the door for dialogue remains open. But the possibility of reaching an agreement seems almost impossible at this point. Doctors are continuing to call on the government to go back to square one and reconsider its quota hike plan. But the government emphasizes that the decision to raise the quota by 2,000 is deemed a minimal increase.

Amid growing concerns over the prolonged confrontation, a group of professors at Seoul National University's college of medicine issued a statement, urging the government to hold regular talks with relevant parties.

"The government should focus on persuading trainee doctors rather than resorting to threats," the group stated. "If the government initiates unjust legal actions against our students, we will respond accordingly."

Jun Ji-hye


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