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Ministry downplays risk of doctors’ strike despite growing calls for action

Hallym University med students to leave campus, head of junior doctors’ group also tenders resignation

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Feb. 15, 2024 - 15:28

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A textbook on anatomy is placed on a desk in an empty classroom at Hallym University’s College of Medicine, in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Thursday. (Yonhap) A textbook on anatomy is placed on a desk in an empty classroom at Hallym University’s College of Medicine, in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, Thursday. (Yonhap)

While medical circles have shown signs of momentum for collective action across the country, the Health Ministry on Thursday downplayed the possibility of them walking out of school campuses and jobs, saying it judges the likelihood of a full-scale joint action as “very low.”

Second Vice Minister of Health and Welfare Park Min-soo said during Thursday’s press briefing that the ministry has seen no movements at this point, adding that reports that junior doctors have submitted their resignation are “false news.” He also said the ministry would try to convince students to avert their decisions on applying for leave of absence all at once, as they also mull protesting against the government.

Earlier Thursday, fourth-year students at Hallym University’s College of Medicine in Chuncheon, Gangwon Province, announced their joint decision to take a one-year leave of absence in protest of the proposed increase in medical school enrollment, becoming the first instance among medical school student groups.

The chief of the school’s emergency response committee posted a statement on its social media page, saying the decision was made “unilaterally” by the students.

“If (the students) can prevent the medical deterioration by taking a one-year break from studying, then that one year wouldn’t be a waste of time. (The committee) plans to compile (fourth-grade) students’ leave of absence letters today and submit them (to the school),” the statement read.

The emergency body also called on its peers to run with the herd.

“Dear junior colleagues at Hallym University’s College of Medicine, as well as medical school colleagues across the nation, please help us so that we can make our leave of absence a unified one,” it wrote.

Vice Minister Park said he “regrets the decision,” urging students to focus on their studies and fulfill their responsibilities. Park added that he is open to discussing the government’s decision to expand the enrollment quota with the medical community, including medical students. He also vowed that the ministry would alleviate the harsh working conditions for doctors.

Amid continued bitter disputes, Park Dan, the head of the Korea Intern Resident Association and an emergency medicine resident at Severance Hospital in Seoul, announced on the same day that he would submit his resignation and step down from his post as chief.

Park said he would stop training at one of the country’s biggest medical institutions and officially tender his resignation letter Tuesday to “regain his sense of peace and happiness” that had long been lost.

“I can no longer bear the building depression that has come with patients’ deaths, fear of medical lawsuits, excessive working hours of 80 hours per week and low wages,” he wrote.

If junior doctors throw aside their gowns, the government could expand telemedicine services and mobilize assistance nurses, the vice minister also said in an interview with MBC Radio earlier in the day. He declined to comment further during the press briefing on specific plans, explaining that the collective action has not materialized yet.

But to prevent disruptions, he said the government would use emergency rooms at military hospitals and public medical institutions, as well as expanding treatment hours for patients.

Meanwhile, several doctor groups from different cities and provinces affiliated with the Korean Medical Association -- the country’s largest coalition of doctors’ groups with some 130,000 members -- took to the streets Thursday afternoon to stage massive demonstrations to take action against the increase in the medical school quota, the first collective action since the organization went into emergency mode last week.

Members of the Gangwon Province Medical Association protested in front of the Gangwon Provincial Office, denouncing the plan as a “populist policy” aiming for more votes in April’s general election.

Doctors under the Daejeon Medical Association, Ulsan Medical Association and medical groups in North Chungcheong and North Jeolla provinces, respectively, also walked the picket line. Some 200 doctors under the Seoul Medical Association will also take part in the protest later in the day in Yongsan, central Seoul, near the Presidential Office.