Striking doctors in South Korea defy deadline to return to work

Striking doctors in South Korea defy deadline to return to work
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Striking doctors in South Korea defy deadline to return to work

Despite facing a government ultimatum to cease their strike or risk legal consequences, numerous South Korean trainee doctors, who initiated a large-scale walkout in opposition to healthcare reforms, remain steadfast in their refusal to resume work. Yonhap News Agency’s report on the deadline day indicates that the majority of these young doctors, objecting to the administration’s initiative to increase medical school admissions, exhibit minimal inclination to return to their hospital duties.

 Trainee Doctors Returning to Work

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo provided an update during a briefing, revealing that, as of Wednesday night, only a mere 294 out of the more than 9,000 trainee doctors who initially participated in the mass walkout had chosen to resume their duties.

 Minister’s Response

Expressing a sense of relief, Minister Park commended those trainee doctors who have made the decision to return to their patients, emphasizing the wisdom and prudence of their choice amid the ongoing healthcare reforms.

Seeking Dialogue

Park conveyed his proactive approach to facilitate dialogue, stating that he had reached out to the striking doctors in an attempt to arrange talks. He expressed hope for a meeting later on Thursday, although he remained uncertain about the number of participants.

 Government’s Stance

Highlighting the government’s position, Park reiterated the commitment to not hold the returning doctors responsible for leaving their posts, provided they return by the stipulated deadline. He underscored the essential role of doctors in patient care and discouraged using strikes as a method of expressing dissatisfaction with government policies.

 Medical Association’s Silence

Despite the government’s overture, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), known for its critique of the government’s perceived intimidation tactics, maintained silence on the prospect of negotiations. Meanwhile, a social media post attributed to young doctors expressed skepticism and disdain for the government’s outreach, labeling it as nothing short of a joke.

Formal measures for punishment by the government are anticipated to commence on Monday, given that Friday is observed as a national holiday.

Government’s Warning and Procedure

Kim Chung-hwan, a senior official from the health ministry, announced that commencing on March 4, the government will initiate the process of notifying doctors who miss the deadline. They will be informed of the government’s intention to suspend their licenses and will be given an opportunity to present their response to the situation.

 Legal Ramifications

According to South Korean law, if the government perceives significant risks to public health, it reserves the authority to compel doctors to return to work. Those who refuse to comply with such directives may face severe penalties, including suspension of their medical licenses for up to one year. Additionally, they could be subject to a prison sentence of up to three years or a fine of 30 million won (approximately $22,500).

 Consequences of Imprisonment

Individuals sentenced to imprisonment would also have their medical licenses revoked, compounding the repercussions of their actions.Speculation suggests that authorities might focus punishment primarily on the leaders of the strike to mitigate further strain on hospital operations.

 Dispute Over Medical School Admissions

At the heart of the disagreement lies the government’s proposal to increase medical school admissions by admitting an additional 2,000 applicants starting next year. This represents a substantial 65 percent increase from the current quota of 3,058 applicants.

 Government’s Initiative and Doctor Shortage

The government has outlined plans to bolster the number of doctors by up to 10,000 by the year 2035 to address the challenges posed by South Korea’s rapidly aging population. Officials highlight the country’s low doctor-to-population ratio compared to other industrialized nations as a pressing concern.

 Doctors’ Concerns and Protest

Protesting young doctors argue that universities lack the infrastructure to provide quality education for the anticipated influx of new students. They assert that the government should prioritize addressing issues such as pay and working conditions before significantly increasing the physician workforce.

Critics of the striking doctors contend that their opposition stems from fears of reduced income due to the influx of additional physicians.

Disruption in Healthcare Services

The ongoing walkout has led to disruptions at major hospitals, resulting in the rejection of some patients and the cancellation of surgeries and medical procedures.

Patients’ Pleas

An alliance representing patients with severe illnesses, including cancer and Lou Gehrig’s disease, has urged doctors to return to work. They emphasize the need for discussions to improve the healthcare system for all individuals. Lee Kun-joo, a hospice patient battling terminal lung cancer, personally appealed to doctors, emphasizing their oath to prioritize patient well-being.

 Public Opinion and Government Response

Despite the protests, the government’s plan enjoys broad support among the South Korean public, as indicated by a recent poll. President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has taken a firm stance against the striking doctors, has witnessed a rise in his approval ratings. Analysts suggest that the government’s firm approach may serve as a strategic advantage in the lead-up to the legislative elections scheduled for April 10. Kim Jae-heon, the secretary-general of an NGO advocating for free medical care, believes that any government retreat at this juncture would be perceived as a significant setback before the impending elections.


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