The Korean government ordered doctors to return to work

On June 18, the Korean government issued a return-to-work order for doctors and medical professors participating in the largest strike in history.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said about 4% of the 36,000 private clinics that notified the government of their closure took part in today’s protest. “To minimize medical disruptions, the order to return to work was issued at 9 a.m. the same day,” he said.

This is considered a tough move against the collective strike action organized by doctors of the Korean Medical Association (KMA). KMA, whose members are private clinic doctors and university hospital doctors, began striking on June 18, marking “the largest collective action in history”. The strike was to protest the government’s increase in medical student quotas, pressuring officials to cancel the administrative penalties for interns and residents who quit their jobs in February.

Professors from 40 medical schools also decided to go on a one-day strike, organized by the Korean Medical Professors Association on June 18. Professors at four major hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University and three major hospitals of Yonsei University warned of an indefinite strike, starting from June 17.

President Yoon Suk Yeol said the strike by doctors and professors was a “regrettable and disappointing move”.

“The government has no other choice but to strictly handle cases of violations and patient neglect,” Yoon said during a cabinet meeting, offering cooperation if doctors return to work.

Meanwhile, Health Minister Cho said that in case of serious medical consequences, officials will inspect and collect evidence to impose administrative sanctions as well as suspend practice according to the law. Along with that, the Ministry investigates posts inciting doctors to refuse medical examination and treatment.

In case a doctor refuses or unilaterally cancels medical examination and treatment without prior notice to the patient, he or she may be subject to criminal prosecution. The government will operate a damage support center, receiving damage reports from patients who are refused medical examination and treatment by doctors.

According to a survey conducted by Nownsurvey last week, nearly eight out of 10 Koreans oppose the doctors’ strike. Some medical associations and healthcare workers publicly criticized this collective action.

Patient organizations also asked the medical community to immediately stop collective action, and asked officials to improve the legal regime to prevent collective action by doctors from recurring.

Korean doctors protested in front of the presidential palace in Seoul on February 25. Image: Reuters

Since February 20, more than 9,000 resident doctors, the core force that cares for and treats critically ill patients, have left the hospital to protest the government’s policy of increasing medical school enrollment quotas by 2,000. Currently, these people have not returned to work.

Strikers say this reform will affect the quality of medical services, causing patients’ hospital bills to increase. Instead of increasing enrollment quotas, the government should address the income and working conditions of current medical staff.

Meanwhile, the government believes that increasing targets is necessary to cope with the aging population and strengthen the medical force for essential sectors such as pediatrics, emergency medicine, and surgery.

By early May, the government had made de-escalating moves such as postponing the suspension of resident doctors’ practice certificates and allowing medical schools to flexibly enroll students, but medical associations objected. They argue that officials need to cancel the entire decision to increase medical enrollment quotas and immediately begin health reform before they can sit at the negotiating table.

By Editor

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