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Gov't appears to shelve punitive measures against mass walkout by doctors

By Yonhap

Published : May 5, 2024 - 11:23

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Amid prolonged tension between medical circles and the government, doctors move at a major general hospital in Seoul Thursday. (Yonhap) Amid prolonged tension between medical circles and the government, doctors move at a major general hospital in Seoul Thursday. (Yonhap)

The government appears to have shelved a plan to take punitive measures against a protracted walkout by trainee doctors and have pulled back slightly from its plan to increase medical school admission quotas amid a standoff with major doctors' associations, according to officials Sunday.

Still, the doctors' associations remained adamant over the issue and renewed their call for the government to revisit the medical reform from scratch, despite some signs of an internal split.

During a media briefing last week, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said the government has decided to grant local universities autonomy in deciding their medical school quota by a range of 50 to 100 percent for the 2025 academic year in a bid to break the monthslong deadlock, according to officials.

Additionally, the government has delayed the suspension of licenses for doctors who have been inactive for months under its "flexible disposition" policy since late March.

No executive order has been issued for medical school professors who have resigned alongside their students.

These measures were seen as a compromise, considering the government's initial push for a total increase of 2,000 medical school admissions starting in 2025, as part of its effort to deal with potential problems stemming from the country's low birthrate and rapid aging, including a lack of medical services in rural areas.

The government's decision triggered a protest from more than 90 percent of the country's 13,000 trainee doctors, who walked away from their duties at general hospitals since Feb. 20.

However, doctors' organizations have united in their calls for the government to scrap the planned hike and draw up a new plan from scratch, despite some signs of division in their internal coordination.

Lim Hyun-taek, the new head of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), a well-known hardliner, has repeatedly slammed the government in strongly worded statements and insisted on invalidating the increase in admissions.

"The plan to increase enrollment by 2,000 medical school students is not a solution for problems in the medical sector," Lim said in an event Saturday, emphasizing the need for a comprehensive reevaluation of the proposed policies.

Park Dan, the leader of a trainee doctors' group and known for his hawkish stance, criticized Lim for trying to form a consultative body of trainee doctors and medical students in an effort to start a dialogue with the government without their consent.

"Our trainee doctors' groups haven't discussed the issue," he said. "We are worried about Lim's arbitrary decision."

He added that trainee doctors and medical students will make their own decisions and go independent.

As the walkout of trainee doctors at hospitals has lasted for more than two months, medical professors, who are senior doctors at major hospitals and have filled in the vacancies, started to take a day off last week, expressing fatigue from the prolonged walkout of junior doctors.

Some professors at Samsung Medical Center, Severance Hospital and Seoul National University Hospital also suspended surgeries and treatment for outpatients for one day last week. (Yonhap)