April 24, 2024

South Korea’s government has started taking steps to suspend the medical licences of thousands of striking doctors, as concern grows that the month-long dispute is affecting frontline health care services.

The walkout by almost 12,000 doctors from 100 teaching hospitals has led to surgery cancellations, longer waiting times and delays in treatment, including for patients seeking emergency care, according to media reports.

The health ministry said it had put in motion procedures that could see 4,900 of the striking doctors lose their licences if they continue to defy orders to return to work.

The ministry also said it had sent administrative notifications, following up on warnings that strikers faced a three-month suspension – a punishment that could delay their ability to qualify as specialists for at least a year.

The increasingly acrimonious dispute began as a protest against government plans to dramatically raise the number of trainee doctors to address shortages in rural areas and greater demand on services caused by South Korea’s rapidly ageing population.

But the 11,994 striking doctors, who make up 93% of the trainee workforce, claim the recruitment of 2,000 additional students a year from 2025 will compromise the quality of services. Instead, they have called for improvements to pay and conditions.

This week the health ministry said it would assign 20 military surgeons and 138 public health doctors to boost staff numbers at selected hospitals, but denied that the country’s health services had descended into chaos.

Chun Byung-wang, director of the ministry’s health and medical policy division, suggested that doctors who return will avoid punishment. “The government will take into account the circumstance and protect trainee doctors if they return to work before the administrative measure is complete,” Chun said.

He added: “The government will not give up on dialogue. The door is always open. The government will respect and listen to opinions of the medical community as a companion for the medical reforms.”

In an attempt to resolve the dispute, the government last week announced measures to improve pay and conditions for trainee medics, as well as a review of continuous 36-hour shifts – a key grievance among junior medics. But the concessions have failed to placate doctors.

Demands are growing for the two sides to negotiate.

“Doctors and the government are not in a boxing ring,” the Kyunghyang Shinmun newspaper said in an editorial. “People’s patience is wearing thin … the exit from this quagmire must be found through dialogue between the two sides.”

Critics of the recruitment plan have accused the country’s conservative president, Yoon Suk Yeol, of using the medical reforms to boost his People Power party’s prospects at next month’s national assembly elections.

A poll published last week by the Yonhap news agency found 84% of respondents supported hiring more doctors, and 43% said striking physicians should receive severe punishments.

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