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Government moves to suspend licenses of striking trainee doctors

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A doctor heads to the main building of a major hospital in Seoul, Thursday, set as the deadline by the government for striking trainee doctors to return to work. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

A doctor heads to the main building of a major hospital in Seoul, Thursday, set as the deadline by the government for striking trainee doctors to return to work. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Nearly 300 doctors have returned to work; ministry expects more to come back
By Jun Ji-hye

The government said it will soon initiate steps to suspend the licenses of striking trainee doctors who failed to return to work by the Thursday deadline imposed by the government as a nationwide walkout continues in protest against the Yoon Suk Yeol administration's proposal to increase the enrollment quota at medical schools.

Previously, the government stated its commitment to enforcing laws and principles without exceptions for those who refuse to comply with its directive to return to work. Authorities also emphasized that license suspensions lasting at least three months, as well as legal proceedings including investigations and potential indictments, would be unavoidable consequences for non-compliance.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare issued an ultimatum on Monday, saying those who return to work by midnight Thursday will not be held accountable for their collective action, as thousands of interns and resident doctors across the country have walked off the job since Feb. 19 in opposition to the proposal to increase the annual quota by 2,000 from the current 3,058 starting next year.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo convened a three-hour meeting with several trainee doctors shortly before the deadline, but they were unable to bridge the gap on key issues. According to Park, fewer than 10 trainee doctors participated in the meeting, and they did not hold representative positions.

"I explained the details of policy plans announced by the government and made it clear that there will be no changes even if the collective action by trainee doctors persists," Park told reporters.

The ministry said 72.8 percent of junior doctors, totaling 9,076 in number, left their worksites as of Tuesday.

As of 11 a.m. Wednesday, 294 of them returned to work, according to reports submitted to the ministry by 100 major hospitals nationwide.

The number of those who returned between Wednesday afternoon and Thursday has yet to be tallied, the ministry said, raising expectations that the figure could increase.

Sources in the medical community indicated that the return of some trainee doctors is visibly affecting and influencing others. They noted that some hospitals have experienced a growing number of telephone inquiries from striking doctors, who are asking questions about the number of physicians who have returned and what measures would be taken regarding their resignation letters.

The ministry said authorities will conduct an on-site inspection at hospitals to finalize a list of trainee doctors who have not returned by the deadline and begin relevant steps for punitive measures.

The steps include giving them prior notice about their violation of the Medical Service Act and offering them an opportunity to state their opinions.

"If their statements are deemed unreasonable, we will move on to the next step (of suspending their licenses)," Park said during a media briefing.

Ambulance crew transfer an emergency patient at a major hospital in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

Ambulance crew transfer an emergency patient at a major hospital in Seoul, Thursday. Korea Times photo by Shim Hyun-chul

The government's aim to increase the number of medical students is part of its efforts to alleviate the shortage of doctors and enhance public access to medical services. However, doctors have expressed concerns that such increases could compromise the quality of education and training. Additionally, they interpret relevant laws differently from the government, asserting that their collective action of leaving hospitals is not illegal.

The prolonged confrontation between doctors and the government has resulted in significant disruptions to medical services.

The government has initiated investigations into several critical cases resulting from the ongoing strike. Among these cases is a report of a pregnant woman with birth canal complications who suffered a miscarriage on Tuesday after being denied surgery at one of the affected hospitals.

Another report filed by bereaved family members claimed that a patient died last Friday as emergency surgery was delayed after problems occurred in his blood vessels during dialysis therapy.

The Korea Alliance of Patients Organization, a coalition of patient groups, asserted that the postponement of treatment amounts to a death sentence for patients. They have urged trainee doctors to promptly return to work and called on the government to devise measures to prevent the recurrence of disruptions in medical services.

"Trainee doctors should stop their collective action and return to caring for patients, especially those in emergency or critical conditions. This is essential to alleviate the inconvenience, anxiety, and harm experienced by patients," a member of the organization said during a press conference in front of the National Human Rights Commission of Korea.


Meanwhile, the government unveiled a plan to significantly augment the number of professors at nine national university medical schools. This initiative aims to mitigate concerns regarding the potential negative impact of increasing the medical school quota on the education and training of future doctors.

"Nine national medical schools located outside the greater Seoul area will have 1,000 more professors by 2027," Interior Minister Lee Sang-min said at a government meeting.

Currently, some 1,300 professors teach medical students at national universities.

The second vice health minister added, "If the number of professors increases, together with the number of students, high-quality education and training will be offered to students and trainee doctors."

As contingency measures in anticipation of further confrontations with doctors, the government has announced plans to expedite the opening schedules of four situation rooms dedicated to emergency medical services.

The situation rooms were originally set to open gradually in the greater Seoul area and Chungcheong, Jeolla and Gyeongsang provinces by the end of May, but they will open on Monday.

"These situation rooms will supervise and manage the transfers of patients in emergency or critical condition so they can receive timely treatment," Lee said.

Jun Ji-hye


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