The Korea Herald


Doctors set to launch full-scale strike in protest against med school reform

Government expresses deep regret over medical community's collective action, calling on doctors to make 'wise judgment'

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 9, 2024 - 15:37

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Doctors attend a meeting held at the Korean Medical Association's headquarters building in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, Sunday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald) Doctors attend a meeting held at the Korean Medical Association's headquarters building in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul, Sunday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

South Korea's largest lobbying group for doctors on Sunday announced its plan to launch a full-scale strike in protest over the country's medical reform policies, which center on increasing the number of slots at medical schools starting next year, once again bringing widespread disruptions to medical services.

The announced walkout, to be held on June 18, comes after the government finalized its expansion plan by allocating 1,509 additional seats at medical schools late last month, marking the country's first such hike in 27 years.

The Korean Medical Association -- the largest doctors group here with some 140,000 members -- said 90.6 percent of its members were in favor of the strike, and 73.5 percent said they would participate during a meeting it held to disclose the outcome of a recent vote on staging the walkout.

A total of 9,645 medical professors, 24,969 self-employed physicians, 24,028 employed doctors, 5,835 junior doctors and 6,323 other members such as military doctors participated in the vote, according to the KMA.

On the day of the "full-scale strike" -- referring to a complete shutdown of medical services -- announced by Lim Hyun-taek, the head of the KMA, doctors will demonstrate in a mass rally. However, specific details regarding the rally have not yet been released.

Vowing to be at the forefront of the "full-fledged battle" against the government, Lim said the decision was made to save South Korea's health care system from the brink of collapsing.

"Now is the time for senior doctors to take action and adhere to the voices of junior doctors and medical students who have borne the brunt of the pain (of the expansion plan). We, as brothers, sisters and senior doctors, must take action," Lim said.

"We will take action to save the country's dying health care, and today, we announce the beginning of such action. We will mobilize all means and methods to protest against the government," Lim added.

Lim warned that doctors will not halt their fight against the government if it does not roll back the medical reform and fire those responsible for the current situation.

Choi Anna, the KMA's spokesperson, also told reporters after the meeting that its future course of action depends on the government, demanding the planned hike for the 2025 school year be voided.

Amid the growing divide, the government on Sunday expressed deep regrets over the medical community's potential all-out strike.

"Several medical professionals are talking about taking additional, illegal collective action, putting the lives of the people as collateral (that could put their health at risk). ... Such actions not only pile immense pressure on emergency medical services, but there's also a risk that it could leave deep scars on our society," Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in a televised briefing.

Han added that the government will continue to try to persuade medical circles until the very end to prevent them from engaging in general strikes, as well as to minimize the medical vacuum left by doctors on strike.

"(The government asks) the medical circle to listen to the pleas made by the public and patients. Please make a wise judgment," Han noted.

Apart from the KMA, an emergency committee of professors at 20 medical schools has lent its support to the doctors group, saying that it "stands in solidarity with the KMA" and would follow the KMA's plan for collective action.

The emergency committee of professors at Seoul National University and Seoul National University Hospital announced on Thursday that it would suspend outpatient treatment and surgeries beginning from June 17, calling on the government to fully withdraw administrative steps to punish trainee doctors who left their worksites to protest the quota hike.

Emergency rooms and intensive care units will still remain in operation, and the treatment of severely ill hospitalized patients will continue, according to the committee.

Observers, however, say physicians who run local clinics are unlikely to join the move due to the financial impact they would have to bear if they shut down their practices, as fewer than 10 percent joined the previous strike in 2020.

The June 18 strike is to be the fourth of its kind organized by the Korean Medical Association.

In 2000, doctors went on strike over a health reform that prohibited them from selling medicine, giving that authorization to pharmacists instead. They went on strike again in 2014 to protest a telemedicine bill. The last collective action was in 2020, when the Moon Jae-in administration tried to lift the number of medical school seats by 400 per year over 10 years starting from 2022.