The Korea Herald


Health services disrupted as mass walkout by trainee doctors approaches deadline

By Yonhap

Published : Feb. 28, 2024 - 09:17

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A patient and a doctor move about a hospital in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) A patient and a doctor move about a hospital in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Medical services at major hospitals have been disrupted as a mass walkout by trainee doctors is nearing a deadline set by the government to return to work, but a small number of junior doctors went back to work.

About 9,000 trainee doctors walked off their jobs for the ninth day in a row Wednesday, as the government ordered them to go back to work by Thursday. Unless they return to work, they will face suspension of licenses and even indictment, but both the government and junior doctors showed little signs of backing down.

At the center of the dispute is the government's plan to boost the medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 next year, from the current 3,058.

On Tuesday, President Yoon Suk Yeol said the plan is a "minimum necessary measure" to address a shortage of doctors and stressed that, "This cannot and should not be a subject for negotiation or compromise."

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also called on striking doctors to return to work, saying, "Doctors leaving their patients cannot be understood or tolerated for any reason whatsoever."

Han noted that a prolonged walkout will cause bigger inconveniences for patients and their families, and burden medical workers remaining at hospitals as he discussed relevant measures during a meeting of the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters on Wednesday.

In another sign of the government's hard-line stance against the walkout, the health ministry filed a complaint with the police against five doctors affiliated with the Korea Medical Association (KMA), a major lobby group of senior doctors, seeking a probe on charges of violation of the medical law and obstruction of justice.

Also on Wednesday, health ministry officials started visiting the homes of trainee doctors to deliver the government's back-to-work order, in a final step that would allow the government to file a criminal complaint over the labor action.

In previous labor actions, trainee doctors had refused to receive the order by turning off their phones when the government sent such an order via text messages.

A ministry official said delivering the order in person is aimed at ensuring "the effectiveness of delivery" in a potential legal dispute with trainee doctors.

Still, Han emphasized that the request for return is "not for punishment" and reiterated that none of the striking doctors will be held accountable over the collective action if they return to work by the back-to-work deadline.

The government has called for trainee doctors to resume work by Thursday, assuring those who comply will not be held responsible for their prior actions, while warning of zero-tolerance consequences for people who fail to comply.

"I earnestly request that they listen to the pleas of the people and the government, and return to their jobs of guarding the lives of patients before it's too late."

As of Tuesday night, 9,937 trainee doctors had submitted resignations and 8,992 of them had left worksites, according to the ministry.

So far, the ministry ordered 9,267 trainee doctors to return to work, a sharp hike from 7,036 and seen as another step to put more pressure on those on leave.

As the deadline approached, some trainee doctors went back to work. At Konkuk University Medical Center in Seoul, 12 trainee doctors out of a total of around 200 have resumed their duties.

"There were 12 trainee doctors who were confirmed to have returned Monday," an official at the university hospital told Yonhap News Agency.

As the mass walkout continued, the number of surgeries performed at major hospitals reportedly halved. In response to the shortage of medical staff, the government has permitted nurses to undertake certain doctor roles in a limited capacity since the previous day.

"In the absence of trainee doctors, hospitals are pushing other workers, including nurses, to perform duties meant for doctors, posing a potential risk of accidents," an official from the labor union at Seoul National University Hospital said.

South Korea has been pushing to increase the number of medical freshmen to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine.

Doctors, however, argue that the government should rather focus on protecting them from malpractice suits and improving compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such unpopular areas. (Yonhap)