Government Demands Doctors Return After Strikes

Government officials in South Korea on February 21 warned striking doctors to immediately return to work or face legal action after a collective walkout disrupted hospital operations and canceled surgeries throughout the country, the Associated Press reported.

Nearly half of the country’s 13,000 interns and residents submitted resignations on February 19 and more than 1,600 walked off the job. By the following day around 7,800 staged a mass walkout, all to protest Seoul’s push to increase the number of medical school admissions by 2,000 to prepare for the country’s aging population.

South Korean physician groups oppose the government’s plan, arguing that the medical schools are not prepared to provide quality training to such a large number of new students. They said a push to increase enrollment would lead to higher medical costs.

In a February 21 statement, the Korean Intern Residents Association said 2,000 was “a nonsensical figure,” and urged Seoul to “rethink its plan” to come up with a policy that would reflect “the voices of trainee doctors.”

The Health Ministry said it had received 58 public complaints over the February 20 walkout, most of them over cancellations or delays in surgeries.

In a press conference on February 21, Interior and Safety Minister Lee Sang-min said the doctors were ordered to return to work and if they failed to do so, the government would deal with the strikers sternly under medical law.

Under the country’s medical law, the government is permitted to issue return-to-work orders to medical professionals if there is a grave risk to public health. Doctors who refuse to comply could face three years in prison or fines of 30 million won ($22,480 US). They could also lose their license to practice.

By Tuesday, February 20, around 8,820 of South Korea’s 13,000 trainee doctors had submitted letters of resignation to their hospitals. None of the resignations have been accepted, according to Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo.

As a temporary measure, Seoul opened its military hospitals to the general public and extended the operating hours at public hospitals. It also ordered emergency centers to remain open 24 hours a day.

However, if senior medical personnel join the walkout or if the current walkouts continue, the additional measures would not be enough to prevent further disruptions in medical services.