The Korea Herald


Health care standoff worsens as professors threaten to leave hospitals

Government mulls issuing maintenance orders against professors joining collective action

By Park Jun-hee

Published : March 12, 2024 - 15:48

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An empty hallway at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap) An empty hallway at a hospital in Seoul (Yonhap)

Further uncertainty is hovering over South Korea’s critical care system, as medical professors, who have been filling the vacuum left by junior doctors walking out, warned they too could walk out in protest against the government’s expansion plan.

The Medical Professors Association of Korea -- a coalition of professors from 33 medical schools -- issued a statement Tuesday that the group would take collective action “if any damage is inflicted” on trainee doctors or medical students, as the government continues to up the ante against those who have left their workplaces and classrooms.

The group also warned that more medical professors would follow suit, which could lead to the collapse of the country’s medical services as well as the quality of education.

Medical professors here often hold concurrent positions where they double as physicians in hospitals. Their collective action would worsen the disruption to hospital care and cause more delayed appointments and surgeries, especially for those already in critical care, as nurses and fellows would be the only ones left to fill the void.

Following the announcement, the government said it would consider issuing maintenance orders to medical professors who walk out of their workplaces.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said during Tuesday’s briefing that the government views medical professors as “health care professionals,” adding that various orders could be issued to them if they leave the medical field based on the country’s medical laws. He declined to comment further.

President Yoon Suk Yeol ordered the same day to swiftly push medical reforms, including the planned hike, according to presidential spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung.

A senior official at the presidential office also said that medical professors will not be exempt from responses to collective action as it violates the country’s medical law.

If they walk out, the official added that the government would take steps under the principles after reviewing various legal procedures.

Earlier in the day, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong also raised concerns over SNU medical professors’ resignations, saying the move “threatens the lives and health of patients.”

“(The government) asks medical school professors to team up with the government to gather wisdom in bringing trainee doctors back and stay by the patients’ side,” Cho said during the Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meeting.

Later in the afternoon, SNU professors requested that the government postpone the expansion plan for a year, urging that the plan and policy for essential health care undergo more discussion.

Bang Jae-seung, who serves as the chief of the emergency committee of SNU and SNUH, proposed forming a dialogue forum comprising the government, the Korean Medical Association, politicians on each side of the aisle and representatives for citizens, professors and junior doctors.

“(We) should ask credible organizations such as the World Health Organization for help with research and comply with the results. The planned hike should be postponed for one year and (we) should objectively determine on increasing the quota and the exact number,” Bang said in a press conference held by SNU professors.

The Health Ministry, however, said it would not consider postponing the hike, saying it’s an “urgent matter that cannot be further delayed.”

“Considering the growing demand for medical services, the one-year delay would result in much greater harm,” the ministry said. “It’s not an alternative the government can choose.”

On Monday, the emergency response committee of Seoul National University’s College of Medicine and Seoul National University Hospital said that medical professors would resign voluntarily beginning next week if the government fails to come up with a “reasonable breakthrough” for the expansion plan and the ongoing medical situation.

Medical professors at Sungkyunkwan University and the Catholic University of Korea will also each hold meetings later this week to discuss collective action, according to reports citing education and health authorities.

Meanwhile, three former and incumbent executives at the Korean Medical Association appeared before police Tuesday concerning suspicions of aiding and abetting trainee doctors’ walkouts. The three have denied the charges of being behind the collective action.