The Korea Herald


Patients resist plan to exempt doctors from criminal charges for mistakes

Discussions come as Korea struggles with doctor shortage

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Nov. 6, 2023 - 14:59

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A government push to exempt doctors from facing criminal charges for medical errors has been met with resistance from patient and civic groups, who say it is already too difficult for injured patients and their families to seek redress.

Korea is struggling to address severe shortages of doctors in vital fields such as pediatrics, obstetrics, and neurosurgery.

Doctors argue greater legal protection should be part of any measures to address the issue, saying that fear of punishment is one of the reasons for shortages in essential fields.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare recently launched a consultative body in which it will discuss how to resolve medical disputes and find ways to attract doctors to essential fields with doctors’ groups, civic groups and legal experts.

The proposal would leave doctors open to criminal punishment in the case of negligence, but protect them in cases of medical error made in the course of normal treatment.

Several essential areas of medicine have faced significant operational crises, affecting patients in regional areas, the ministry said.

According to a recent report released by the National Medical Center, among 250 cities, counties and districts nationwide, 108 cities, counties and districts are classified as "medically vulnerable areas" in terms of patient access to proper medical care before giving birth or in an emergency.

Based on the threshold in the report, for over 30 percent of the residents of these areas, it took more than 60 minutes to get a delivery room, mainly due to a shortage of obstetricians.

Doctors’ groups point out that the fields where there are shortages are ones in which they are more likely to face lawsuits from patients. Many of them involve unpredictable medical situations or high-risk surgeries.

In a survey conducted last year by the Korea Medical Association -- the country's largest coalition of doctors groups with 130,000 members -- 41.2 percent of responding doctors said the government should increase medical fees to support essential medical fields, followed by 28.8 percent calling for reducing criminal liability.

“We welcome the government's drive. Legal protection for doctors is urgently needed,” the KMA said.

However, the government's push has generated opposition from patients' groups, saying that medical malpractice is already difficult to prove here.

“The victims of medical accidents have an absolute lack of medical knowledge and expertise so it is difficult for them to prove the accident was caused by medical negligence, and even if a lawsuit is brought, this takes a lot of time and money,” the Newis news agency quoted An Ki-jung, chair of the Korea Alliance of Patients Organization as saying. “A law is needed to require that practitioners prove they were not negligent, or that they did not cause the accident.”

“Criminal cases have an influence on civil cases, but because the burden of proof falls on patients, doctors are normally acquitted or their punishment stops at a fine,” he added.

Patients can face resistance from hospitals even in seemingly open-and-shut cases.

In 2018, a gynecologist at a university hospital in Incheon failed to remove an ovarian cyst in a woman in her 50s during surgery and instead removed her kidney by mistake.

The hospital initially refused to recognize this apparently obvious case of negligence, admitting its liability only after the patient and her family raised the issue through news media.

“If doctors are unconditionally exempted from criminal punishment, that will threaten patients' safety,” civic group the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice said.