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Doctors threaten to strike in March

Ministry offers talks, vows stern action

The Korea Medical Association vowed Sunday to go on an all-out strike on March 3 if the government pushes ahead with its plan to allow telemedicine and for-profit medical subsidiaries.

The move by the country’s largest group of doctors is to pressure the government to abandon its plan, which doctors see as a step toward commercializing the country’s medical sector.

The announcement prompted the government to say it would actively negotiate with the group to prevent the country’s medical sector from immobilizing completely.

“The government respects the KMA’s decision to put off its strike and engage in talks. The government will also take part in the talks with an open mind,” said Vice Health Minister Lee Young-chan. He added that a strike that threatens the people’s well-being would not be tolerated under any circumstances.

The KMA had demanded that prior to the talks, the government needed to show a will to reform the country’s health insurance system and give up its plans to introduce telemedicine and for-profit subsidiaries.

Lee said that these issues could be reexamined if the KMA presents a “reasonable” suggestion.

Telemedicine and subsidiaries were key points in the government’s plans that sparked a wave of opposition from doctors and some civic groups.

The government said that telemedicine, delivering medical care through technology such as cell phones, can provide easily accessible services to patients who have difficulty moving. It also claimed that the deregulation would improve the overall quality of medical services and create jobs.

The KMA, however, said that doctors dealing with their patients remotely could bring down the quality of treatment.

“The government is dismissing doctors’ opposition toward telemedicine, but doctors think it is a more serious issue than the separation of medical dispensing and prescribing in 2000,” said Roh Kyu-hwan, president of the KMA. Even though the government is promoting telemedicine as having few to no downsides, it is “unacceptable” in consideration of possible misdiagnoses, he said.

In reaction to such criticism, the Health Ministry announced last month that medical institutions would be banned from providing telemedicine-only services. It had also required patients receiving telemedicine care to visit clinics.

Those in the medical circles also suspect the government’s plan involving subsidiaries would lead to profit-seeking hospitals, which would ultimately drive up hospital fees. The government has repeatedly said that the deregulation is not a step toward privatizing the country’s health care system.

The controversy over the government’s plans turned into a political dispute as rival parties were at loggerheads over whether the plans would lead to the much-feared privatization of the medical sector.

The main opposition Democratic Party urged the government to scrap its plans. It said that viewing medical services as a profitable business is a form of “pariah capitalist thinking,” warning that people would suffer from the surge in medical costs.

The ruling Saenuri Party called the DP’s claim political demagogy, saying that the plans would not result in privatization or a surge in medical costs.

By Yoon Min-sik (