(5th LD) Gov’t asks doctors to remain by patients amid looming collective action


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SEOUL, Feb. 18 (Yonhap) — South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Sunday called for doctors to refrain from taking collective action amid their looming strike in protest of the government’s decision to raise medical school enrollment seats.

Doctors have warned of a massive strike and other responses in opposition to the government’s decision announced earlier this month to add 2,000 to the country’s medical school freshmen quota next year, marking a sharp rise from the current 3,058 seats.

“If doctors actually take action resulting in a health care vacuum, the damage will fall on the people,” Han said in a statement. “The health care vacuum resulting from collective action is something that should never happen, as it takes people’s lives and health as hostages.”

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo speaks during a press briefing held in Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo speaks during a press briefing held in Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Medical staffers walk at a hospital in Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Medical staffers walk at a hospital in Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Han pointed out that the government’s efforts to reform the medical sector can only succeed when the country secures more doctors.

The prime minister’s statement came after trainee doctors of five major general hospitals in Seoul said that they would submit their letters of resignation on Monday. They also decided to walk off the job on the following day.

“Considering the time needed to educate medical specialists, we can no longer delay the hike. Not only patients are aging, but so are the doctors,” Han said, noting that the quota has not been raised for 27 years.

Han reiterated that the government will continue to roll out incentives for doctors as well, including building a “safety net” to limit their criminal liability in cases of malpractice.

South Korea also earlier vowed to allocate 10 trillion won (US$7.4 billion) by 2028 to enhance compensation for medical services in crucial areas and to attract more doctors to practice in such sectors with higher risks.

In a separate statement, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said the government is open to talks with doctors, urging them to refrain from taking collective action.

“It is deeply regrettable that the Korea Medical Organization is taking the path of protest,” Cho said. “We urge medical staffers to stand by patients, and the government will continue to leave the door open for dialogue.”

Officials, meanwhile, earlier said the government has issued an order on hospitals to submit doctors’ daily work logs as it vowed to take stern actions should doctors engage in a strike.

“(The directive) was issued to prevent instances where doctors, having received the government’s return-to-work orders, return to the hospital, only to leave again to participate in collective action,” an official from the health ministry said.

As of Friday, the health ministry reported that 715 trainee doctors from 23 hospitals had submitted resignation letters, although none of them have been accepted so far.

“If trainee doctors engage in collective action, the government will take necessary measures under the authority granted by the law to protect the people, as well as their health and lives,” Cho said.

Citizens watch a news report on Prime Minister Han Duck-soo's statement on the medical school quota hike at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Citizens watch a news report on Prime Minister Han Duck-soo’s statement on the medical school quota hike at Seoul Station in central Seoul on Feb. 18, 2024. (Yonhap)

Under the local medical law, the government possesses the authority to potentially revoke doctors’ licenses should they receive criminal punishments after failing to adhere to the order to return to work.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA), the largest lobbying group for doctors, on Saturday vowed to take “unbearable” steps and said they could walk off the job indefinitely if the government continues to threaten interns and residents opposing the plan.

Shortly after Han’s statement, the KMA’s emergency committee warned of an “irreversible medical catastrophe” if the government tries to punish medical students and doctors.

The committee accused the statement of being “nothing more than a justification to suppress and punish” the doctors and criticized the government for attempting to turn the Korean healthcare system into a “Cuban-style socialist healthcare system” while demonizing and witch-hunting doctors.

Meanwhile, major hospitals issued announcements their surgery schedules may be adjusted due to the collective move.

Students from 35 out of 40 medical schools also committed to submitting leave of absence requests to their respective universities on Tuesday, showcasing their solidarity with the ongoing doctors’ protest.

In the first such move, around 160 medical students at Wonkwang University in Iksan, North Jeolla Province, submitted their leave of absence, the education ministry said Sunday.

In a Gallup Korea poll involving 1,002 individuals last week, 76 percent of respondents favored the “positive aspects” of the medical school quota hike, with only 16 percent expressing a negative view.

Doctors walk at a hospital in Seoul on Feb. 16, 2024. (Yonhap)

Doctors walk at a hospital in Seoul on Feb. 16, 2024. (Yonhap)

colin@yna.co.kr
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