Tuesday, May 21, 2024
HomeMoneySouth Korean government warns striking doctors to return to work or face...

South Korean government warns striking doctors to return to work or face legal action

SEOUL, South Korea — The South Korean government on Wednesday warned thousands of striking doctors to return to work immediately or face legal action after their collective walkouts caused cancellations of surgeries and disrupted other hospital operations.

About 7,800 medical interns and residents in South Korea have walked off their jobs this week to protest the government’s push to recruit more medical students.

Officials say they want to increase the nationwide medical school admissions cap by 2,000 from next year to brace for South Korea’s rapidly aging population. But doctors’ groups have refuted the plan, saying universities aren’t ready to offer quality education to that many students. They argue the government’s push to have more doctors would lead to increased public medical expenses because physicians locked in competition could perform unnecessary treatments.

The 2,000 additional admissions “is a nonsensical figure,” the Korean Intern Residents Association said in a statement Tuesday. “We hope the government will rethink its plan and formulate a policy that reflects the voices of trainee doctors.”

Junior doctors typically support senior doctors during surgeries and deal with inpatients. Their joint walkouts have burdened hospital operations. The Health Ministry said Wednesday that authorities have received 58 public complaints over the walkouts, mostly regarding indefinite delays of surgeries and cancellations of other medical treatments.

“A collective action holding the lives and safety of the people cannot be justified for whatever reason,” Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min told a news conference with other top officials.

Lee said the government issued an official order for striking doctors to return to work. He said the government will sternly deal with the doctors’ walkouts in line with the medical law and other regulations.

South Korea’s medical law allows the government to issue such back-to-work orders to doctors and other medical personnel when there are grave concerns about public health. If they refuse to abide by the order, they could face up to three years in prison or 30 million won ($22,480) in fines, a punishment that would also lead to the revocation of their medical licenses, according to the law.

Justice Minister Park Sung-jae accused some doctors of seeking to protect “their vested interests.” He said that if they refuse to return to work, authorities will file legal charges against them and arrest others had led their walkouts.

Trainee doctors said the government’s return-to-work order was intimidation and must be withdrawn immediately. The Korea Medical Association, which represents 140,000 doctors, said it supports the trainee doctors’ walkouts but hasn’t decided whether to join them.

Joo Sooho, a spokesperson for a KMA task force, accused the government of “demonizing doctors.”

“We strongly condemn the government for holding the people hostage and suppressing doctors,” he told reporters.

A recent survey suggested that a majority of South Koreans support the government’s plan. Some critics say doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, oppose a steep increase in admissions because of worries they may lose income.

As of Tuesday night, about 8,820 out of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors have submitted resignations to their hospitals. None of the resignations had been approved, but about 7,810 of the doctors have walked off, Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters.

To deal with the trainee doctors’ walkouts, the government has opened military hospitals to the public, extended the operating hours of public medical institutions and had emergency medical treatment centers stay open around the clock. But observers say if the walkouts are prolonged or joined by senior doctors, that could cause major disruptions in South Korea’s overall medical service.

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