South Korea’s president vows not to tolerate walkouts by junior doctors

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s president vowed Wednesday not to tolerate the situation prolonged strikes by thousands of doctors in trainingThey call them “an illegal collective action” that threatens public health and undermines the country’s governance systems.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government was engaged in this process suspending the licenses of approximately 9,000 medical interns and residents due to their joint strikes that have impacted the capacity of hospitals to provide care.

The trainee doctors have been on strike for more than two weeks in protest against government pressure to admit thousands more new students to medical schools in the coming years. Officials say the enrollment plan is essential to cope with the country’s rapidly aging population, but doctors say schools cannot handle such an abrupt, sharp increase in students, and that this will ultimately affect the quality of medical services of South Korea would undermine.

“The doctors’ collective action is an act that betrays their responsibilities and shakes the foundation of liberalism and constitutionalism,” Yoon said in a televised speech at the start of a cabinet meeting. “An illegal action that infringes on people’s right to life will never be tolerated.”

Yoon’s government did the striking doctors repeatedly called out to return to work or face charges and suspensions of at least three months. But most strikers lacked a seat in government Deadline February 29 for their return.

Under South Korea’s medical law, doctors who defy the order to return to work can be punished with up to three years in prison or a fine of 30 million won (about $22,500), as well as a suspension of their medical license until a year. Those who receive prison sentences may have their licenses revoked.

As of Monday, the Ministry of Health started the administrative steps to suspend the strikers’ permits: sending officials to hospitals to formally confirm their absence and sending notices to the strikers about their planned suspensions. The ministry had to give them a chance to respond before their suspensions take effect.

Observers say the ministry will likely end up suspending the strike leaders, rather than the entire group of the 9,000 doctors who have resigned – a huge administrative task that will likely take weeks or more.

Deputy Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters on Tuesday that the government plans to file complaints against strike leaders to also subject them to police investigation. But he said officials have not yet determined when they would do that and against whom.

The notable residents and interns represent only about 6.5% of the country’s 140,000 physicians. But in some large hospitals they represent about 30% to 40% of the total number of doctors and played the role of assisting senior doctors during operations and dealing with inpatients during training. Their strikes have subsequently led to hundreds of canceled surgeries and other treatments in their hospitals and placed a heavy burden on South Korea’s medical service.

The public is largely opposed to the doctors’ strikes, and surveys show Yoon’s approval ratings are rising due to his push for the medical school enrollment plan. A poll showed that a majority of South Koreans supported the enrollment plan.

Health officials have said treatment of emergency and critical patients remains largely stable, with public hospitals extending operating hours and military hospitals opening emergency rooms to the public. But if senior doctors were to join the strikes, South Korea’s medical service would take a major hit.

The Korean Medical Association, which represents doctors in South Korea, has expressed support for the striking trainee doctors but has not yet decided whether to join the strikes.

Police were investigating allegations that five senior KMA officials had instigated and promoted the junior doctors’ strikes, and said they had summoned one of them on Wednesday. Speaking to reporters ahead of his interrogation, Joo Sooho, a spokesperson for the KMA’s emergency committee, denied the allegations.

Currently there is a limit of 3,058 medical students per year. The The government wants to add 2,000 additional medical students starting in 2025, citing South Korea’s doctor-to-population ratio, which it says is one of the lowest in the developed world.

But doctors say the plan cannot address the chronic shortage of doctors in rural areas and in essential but low-paying specialties, because newly recruited students would also want to work in the capital region and in high-paying fields such as plastic surgery and dermatology.

The striking trainee doctors have accused the government of ignoring harsh conditions, working more than 80 hours a week for minimum wage. But post-residential physicians are among the highest paid professionals in South Korea.

Some critics say the strikers are simply concerned that the added competition from more doctors would lead to lower incomes in the future.

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