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Govt. urges restraint as junior doctors plan joint action

Interns, residents to walk out over med school quota increase; medical students to leave campus Tuesday

By Park Jun-hee

Published : Feb. 18, 2024 - 14:53

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Medical personnel walk down the corridor of a hospital in Seoul, Friday. (Yonhap) Medical personnel walk down the corridor of a hospital in Seoul, Friday. (Yonhap)

The Korean government on Sunday issued a public plea urging doctors to abstain from joint action that could disrupt nationwide medical services. The statement comes as interns and residents prepare to stage a walkout this week in protest against the government’s decision to increase medical school enrollment quotas by over 60 percent.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo urged junior doctors to reconsider taking their gowns off, saying that citizens would have to bear the brunt of collective action.

“If such movements translate into actual actions and result in a shortage of medical services, the repercussions will directly affect the public. This is an unacceptable situation, which takes the lives and health of the people as hostages,” Han said during Sunday’s televised press briefing.

“The government is ready to talk and communicate (with doctors) any time on medical reform. The differences should be narrowed through rational discussions and dialogues rather than collective action.”

As of Friday 6 p.m., 715 trainee doctors at 23 training hospitals had submitted their resignation letters, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said during the same briefing.

However, hospitals haven’t begun to process the resignations yet, according to Cho. He also said the government would issue administrative orders to those who haven’t retired to work to help out services.

Under Article 59 of the Medical Service Act, the health minister or the relevant mayor or governor may order medical institutions or personnel to resume services if there is a “reasonable ground to believe that suspension of medical service without any justifiable ground is likely to cause great difficulties in providing medical treatment to patients.”

To prevent disruption, Cho added that tertiary hospitals will continue maintaining their function as a healthcare institution focusing on patient care and that the country’s 400 emergency medical institutions will also operate a 24-hour emergency medical care system.

The emergency committee of the Korea Medical Association, representing the country’s largest coalition of doctors’ groups with approximately 130,000 members, dismissed Prime Minister Han’s statement as a “mere attempt to justify the suppression and punishment of doctors’ autonomous actions.”

The statement continued, warning that, “If the government endeavors to enforce an unconstitutional framework to penalize actions based on the free will of medical students and trainee doctors, it will inevitably result in a medical catastrophe.”

A group of trainee doctors at Seoul’s “Big Five” hospitals have decided to resign en masse by Monday and stop working at 6 a.m. Tuesday.

The Big Five hospitals are Seoul National University Hospital, Severance Hospital, Samsung Medical Center, Asan Medical Center and the Catholic University of Korea Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital.

Other doctors at Chonnam National University Hospital and Chosun University Hospital also plan to submit resignations and go on unsanctioned leave starting Monday, according to reports citing health authorities Sunday.

On Thursday, 126 trainee doctors under 22 departments at Wonkwang University Hospital also officially tendered their resignations, but said they would continue their training until March 15.

The hospital said it would decide whether to accept the resignations. The government sees the resignations as collective action and has warned it will take legal action to force the doctors back to work.

In an effort to break the impasse, the Health Ministry has ordered training hospitals to submit daily work logs of trainee doctors to keep track of the number of specialists who resigned, took time off, or were absent without permission.

The government on Friday issued work-resumption orders for 103 junior doctors who did not work as scheduled. Of those who received the order, 100 had returned to work, while the return of the other three remains unconfirmed.

Medical institutions are bracing for further disruption as junior doctors form the backbone of hospitals and clinical care as they train to be specialists in a particular field.

Health Ministry data shows there are around 13,000 junior doctors in South Korea, including 2,745 in the Big Five hospitals. They account for 30 to 40 percent of medical personnel in tertiary hospitals, mainly assisting doctors in surgeries and medical examinations, as well as overseeing patients as attending physicians.

Severance Hospital made an internal announcement Friday, advising staff that it would reduce operating room capacity due to staff shortages. It said the Department of Anesthesiology and Pain Medicine would be able to cope with at most half the usual number of patients as junior doctors’ absence is expected.

Seoul National University Hospital, Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital and Gangnam Severance Hospital have informed patients that their surgery and hospitalization schedules may be adjusted due to junior doctors’ collective action. Gangnam Severance Hospital also said it would only perform emergency surgeries on Tuesday.

In addition, medical students at 40 colleges nationwide will also apply for leaves of absence en masse on Tuesday, the Korean Medical Student Association said Friday. The decision was “unanimous,” it added.

Meanwhile, the Korean Medical Association announced Saturday it would hold a rally on Feb. 25 to condemn the government’s planned hike. The group added that it would decide on collective action through a vote of members.