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[Newsmaker] Doctors protest operating room surveillance bill

Legal revision awaits final vote at the National Assembly on Monday

A senior official with the Korean Medical Association stages a single-person rally Tuesday by the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul. (KMA)
A senior official with the Korean Medical Association stages a single-person rally Tuesday by the National Assembly in Yeouido, western Seoul. (KMA)
Doctors in South Korea are fiercely opposing the passage of a bill that would require surveillance cameras being installed inside operating rooms, as they believe the move would negatively influence surgical procedures and serve as potential leak of personal data.

The Korean Medical Association has been staging a one-person rally since Tuesday to oppose the bill from being enacted on coming Monday during the next plenary meeting of the National Assembly. KMA head Lee Pil-soo started the rally on Friday at 9 a.m., followed by other executive members of the largest representative group of doctors in the country.

“Our association is concerned that the best forms of medical practices done with diligence and good faith will be threatened by an environment of forced surveillance,” the association said in a statement Monday.

“This policy, which would put every practice of doctors on the front line to save patients’ lives under extremely hazardous conditions under surveillance, will inextricably make doctors avoid patients in life-or-death situations and step away from risks.”

The group has argued that the bill, if enacted, will undermine the trust between doctors and patients while preventing doctors from engaging in complex medical procedures due to worries of legal conflicts and concerns that medical professionals will be seen as potential criminals.

The bill mandates hospitals to keep video records of medical procedures if requested by patients or their guardian if the operation involves the use of full anesthesia. The video footage would have to be saved for at least 30 days in case of a legal dispute.

Recording requirements could be exempted in emergencies or while conducting highly risky operations. The revision to the Medical Service Act is to be officially enacted after a two-year grace period.

KMA warned it would file a constitutional complaint if the bill is enacted, as mandatory surveillance on a medical practice itself could be violation of doctors’ basic rights. The measure is also problematic for invading the privacy rights of patients inside operating rooms, it says.

The group representing more than 130,000 licensed doctors in Korea has been joined by a number of other major doctors’ representative organizations in opposing the bill, which has swiftly passed all but the last legislative procedures with the support of ruling Democratic Party of Korea.

The legislative proposal passed the Legislation and Judiciary Committee early Wednesday morning after passing the vote from Health and Welfare Committee on Monday.

Both votes were passed with support from the ruling party, which controls 60 percent of 300 seats in the National Assembly.

Some doctors have been mulling a boycott of surgical procedures or COVID-19 vaccination schemes to protest the bill if it is passed. They are also considering waging collective action to make their voices heard.

Yet patients’ groups and the general public view the bill positively due to its potential to safeguard patients from medical malpractice.

According to a Realmeter survey on 500 adults conducted in June, 78.9 percent of respondents said they supported installing surveillance cameras in hospital operating rooms, with only 17.4 percent opposing the idea.

The bill has garnered much support from the public after a college student in Seoul died during a problematic plastic surgery in 2016. The idea was discussed for years by lawmakers but was derailed several times due to fierce political conflict over the issue.

The Korea Alliance of Patients Organization has expressed support for the bill, claiming the revision would help put an end to medical malpractice among ill-minded doctors and help protect doctors who act in accordance with the law and medical principles.

By Ko Jun-tae (