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[Newsmaker] Health minister asks doctors to cancel strike

Young doctors plan to walk off job Friday to protest government’s health reforms

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo speaks during an address on health reforms and doctors` strike at the government complex building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Thursday morning. (Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo speaks during an address on health reforms and doctors` strike at the government complex building in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul, on Thursday morning. (Ministry of Health and Welfare)

South Korea’s top health official on Thursday urged doctors to cancel their walkouts, the first of which is planned for Friday, and asked for their cooperation with the government’s impending health reforms.

In an address, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo appealed for the action to be called off, in consideration of the coronavirus situation. “Disruption in health service in a time like this could imperil public health even further,” he warned.

The walkout comes after the ruling Democratic Party and the Cabinet announced last month a package of health reforms that would change the way the country recruits and manages its health care workforce. Under the proposal, some 4,000 additional medical students will be recruited over 10 years starting in 2022 to be deployed in regions outside Seoul.

Park said recruiting more students to medicine is “imperative to ensure equal access to care for all.” “Deaths in emergency admitted patients are much higher in counties in provinces like Gangwon than those reported in Seoul,” he said. “The country needs even distribution of health service across all regions.”

The reform plans have drawn opposition from doctors nationwide, who say their side of the argument has been slighted.

The Korean Medical Association, which is the country’s largest doctors’ trade union, is considering a larger walkout involving doctors of all grades on Aug. 14. The doctors’ group says the current proposal overlooks the “structural problems” in the medical system.

“Trying to increase health care access by increasing the number of its providers is a simple approach to a complex issue that overlooks the real problems,” one of the officials from the group said.

The group also said the health care community was not at all involved in the decision-making process and that the requests they made through statements have been snubbed.

The first meeting between the ministry and the representatives of doctors and medical students was held Thursday afternoon. If negotiations fall through at the meeting, the doctors said they will proceed with the Aug. 14 strike as scheduled.

In both strikes, outpatient appointments and surgeries will go ahead as normal, and urgent and critical care facilities will continue running, the doctors said.

By Kim Arin (arin@heraldcorp.com)

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