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South Korea orders doctors to return to work as strike grows

The South Korean government on Wednesday officially ordered striking doctors to return to work, a step that could lead to legal punishments if the doctors do not end their walkouts, which have caused cancellations of surgeries and other treatments at hospitals as thousands more joined protests that commenced earlier this week.

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 also say the government’s plan would lead to increased public medical expenses since it lacks measures for how to raise low medical fees in some key professions.

The 2,000 additional admissions “is a nonsensical figure,” the Korean Intern Residents Association said in a statement on 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 treat patients in hospitals. 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.

On Wednesday, the government accused the trainee doctors of putting their rights before the lives of patients.

“The fundamental responsibility of medical personnel is caring for the lives and health of the people. I would say once again that any collective action that threatens this cannot be justified,” Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters.

The media reports said emergency rooms in South Korea were overcrowded on Wednesday, with major hospitals having to cancel scheduled surgeries after thousands of trainee doctors joined a protest walkout.

Apart from overcrowded emergency rooms, five major hospitals in Seoul, the capital, had to cancel between a third and a half of scheduled surgeries, media said.

Park said that as of Tuesday night, about 8,820 out of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors have submitted resignations to their hospitals. None of their resignations has been approved, but about 7,810 of the doctors have left their work sites, Park said.

Park said the government issued an official order for most of the striking doctors to return to work.

“The police and the prosecutors’ office will consult and take measures against any group or individuals who are leading collective action, including arrest and investigation,” Safety Minister Lee Sang-min told a news conference, according to a Reuters report.

South Korea’s medical law allows the government to issue such back-to-work orders to doctors and other medical personnel when there are 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.

Park didn’t detail possible punishments but said the government would enforce the law in a principled manner. He called for dialogue with the striking doctors.

Trainee doctors said the government’s return-to-work order was intimidation and must be withdrawn immediately.

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.

South Korea has a total of 140,000 doctors. The Korea Medical Association said it plans to hold rallies to support the trainees but hasn’t determined whether to launch strikes.

The country’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for peers in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

One group participating in the protest, the Korean Intern Residents Association, said the doctors deserved better treatment, including more pay.

It criticized the plan for more medical school students as a political ploy ahead of a general election in April.

“We couldn’t just sit back and watch medical policies built only for the sake of winning the general election,” it said in a statement.

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