The Korea Herald


Ministry urges doctors to end walkout, mulls processing resignations

Government to hold annual state medical exam despite med students' refusal to return to school

By Choi Jeong-yoon

Published : June 3, 2024 - 16:10

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A patient rests at a university hospital in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday as the dispute over the expansion of medical schools continues. (Yonhap) A patient rests at a university hospital in Seoul, South Korea, on Monday as the dispute over the expansion of medical schools continues. (Yonhap)

Amid the ongoing dispute between doctors and the South Korean government despite the increased medical school quota for 2025 being finalized, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong on Monday voiced concerns regarding a planned strike vote by community doctors and warned that such actions could exacerbate the ongoing standoff with trainee doctors over the government's medical reform.

"If the medical community proceeds with a vote on a collective strike and files lawsuits against university presidents, it will only spark endless tension and discord," Cho said during a Monday briefing.

According to media reports, The Korea Medical Association, the nation's largest doctors' organization, plans to vote this week on whether to strike, potentially including doctors at local clinics.

Since late February, approximately 12,000 trainee doctors have been on strike, protesting the plan to increase the medical school admissions quota by 2,000 and causing significant disruptions in general hospitals and emergency rooms.

Cho also noted that the government will make efforts to minimize penalties on junior doctors returning to their work sites.

"We plan to minimize disadvantages for the returning junior doctors and make efforts to improve their training environment," Cho said.

The government also announced that it will accept some of the seven demands from the trainee doctors, including withdrawing the injunction on banning their resignation letters and revoking various orders, to facilitate their return.

When asked about accepting resignation letters from doctors, Jun Byung-wang, a policy chief at the Health Ministry said the government is currently in discussion reflecting meetings with hospital directors and the opinions of doctors and pledged to make the decision as soon as possible.

“If the ban on accepting resignations is lifted, hospital directors will have the authority to consult with doctors to persuade them to return to work if possible, and if they say they cannot practice due to various circumstances, the hospital director will be empowered to process their resignation,” Jun noted.

The seven demands from junior doctors include canceling the essential medical care policy package and the medical school expansion plan proposed by the government and establishing an organization to scientifically estimate the supply and demand of doctors.

The health ministry will also proceed with the annual national medical examination as scheduled in September, despite calls for a postponement from medical students, who have joined junior doctors in protest by walking out of classrooms.

The government's decision comes after some universities have called for the exam to be postponed to prevent the potential mass flunking of medical students, which could lead to a collapse of the medical personnel training system and an irrecoverable educational loss.

“There are participants who are currently preparing for the exam, so to protect their trust, we want to hold the exam at the same time as in previous years,” Cho added.

With the majority of medical students still refusing to return to class, the minister added there is a risk that they will not be able to obtain their medical licenses in a normal timeframe. “I urge medical students to return to class as soon as possible so that they can prepare for their future as doctors,” Cho added.

Meanwhile, a poll released Monday revealed that nearly 86 percent of South Koreans believe junior doctors, who have been on strike since late February, should return to hospitals. The survey, conducted by the Korean Health and Medical Workers' Union, found that 85.6 percent of 1,000 respondents urged doctors to resume their duties, while only 12 percent supported the strike.

Additionally, about 65 percent of respondents agreed that authorities should move forward with the plan to increase medical school seats, significantly outnumbering the 29 percent who supported the doctors' call to abandon the reform.