South Korea gives protesting doctors end-Feb deadline to return to work

February 26, 2024 - 1:34 PM
South Korean doctors
South Korean doctors march to the Presidential Office to protest against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, February 25, 2024. (Reuters/Kim Soo-Hyeon)

SEOUL — South Korea’s government on Monday told young doctors they had until the end of February to return to work or risk being punished for staging a week-long protest that has disrupted services for patients at several major hospitals.

Two-thirds of the nation’s residents and intern doctors had walked off the job to protest a government plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical school in a bid to address what authorities say is a shortage of doctors that is set to worsen in one of the world’s fastest aging societies.

The protest has forced hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures.

“Considering the gravity of the situation, the government issues the last plea,” safety minister Lee Sang-min said at the opening of a task-force meeting, adding that chaos was mounting in hospitals and emergency services had reached a “dangerous situation”.

“If you return to the hospital you left behind by February 29, you won’t be held responsible for what has already happened,” he said. “We urge you to remember your voice will be heard loudly and most effectively when you are by the side of patients.”

The government has previously warned that it could take legal action against doctors who do not comply with a back-to-work order, including prosecution, possible arrest and stripping them of their medical licences.

The young doctors who are protesting say the government should first address pay and working conditions before trying to increase the number of physicians.

Vice health minister Park Min-soo said those who did not return by March 1 will face a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licence among other legal action.

Senior doctors and private practitioners have not joined the walkout but have held rallies urging the government to scrap its plan to boost medical school quotas.

Many South Koreans support the plan, which has been spearheaded by President Yoon Suk Yeol.

A recent Gallup Korea poll showed about 76% of respondents approved of the plan, regardless of their political affiliation and a separate opinion poll by Realmeter released on Monday showed that Yoon’s approval rating had risen to 41.9%, the first time in eight months it has topped the 40% level.

In a package of policy plans to improve medical services, the government said it will increase the number of new medical students by 2,000 a year and expand legal protection against malpractice suits and prosecution.

It also plans to give incentives for doctors to practice in essential disciplines such as pediatrics and general surgery and in regional areas where shortage of doctors is more serious.

Some doctors, however, say the government’s plan is aimed at winning more votes in the April general election. In a statement, medical professors at Seoul National University, which runs one of the top medical schools in the country, called on the authorities to postpone discussing the plan until after the elections.

— Reporting by Jack Kim and Ju-min Park; Editing by Ed Davies and Miral Fahmy