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South Korea Urges Doctors to End Strike, Threatening Consequences as Hospitals Suffer

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Troubles are mounting as South Korea’s hospitals are starting to buckle under the gaping absence of thousands of junior doctors on strike against a government plan to increase the intake of medical students.

In a “last” plea on Monday, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min urged striking doctors to return to work by Thursday, promising immunity against penalties for those who abide by the deadline.

“The government won’t hold you accountable for the past if you return to the hospitals by Thursday,” he said at a governmental meeting. “The hospitals you left are filled with fears and anxieties.”

Lee added that those who continue to strike after Thursday will be subject to disciplinary measures including at minimum a three-month suspension of their medical licenses and potentially even criminal prosecution.

Despite a slew of emergency measures announced since the strike began last week, operations across major hospitals have been affected by the protest. A brain cancer patient from Daegu told AFP that his chemotherapy treatment was postponed, even though the cancer has spread to his lungs and liver, while pregnant women say they have had their C-sections canceled. And in the city of Daejeon, a woman in her 80s who suffered a cardiac arrest on Friday died in an ambulance after the vehicle was turned away by seven hospitals, which each reportedly cited a lack of available doctors among other reasons for being unable to attend to the patient, according to local media.

In a series of announcements last week, the country’s health ministry said it has received nearly 200 public complaints related to the strike.

Amid the walkout, which comes on top of an already persistent shortage of doctors in the country, the South Korean government has raised the public health alert to the highest level

The health ministry said in a press release on Monday that over 9,000 trainee doctors—about 72% of the country’s total residents—have walked off the job, while over 10,000 trainee doctors—or 80%—had tendered their resignations as of Friday evening.

Medical graduates are also supporting the strike by refusing to take up internships, exacerbating the stress on hospitals by depriving them of incoming residents.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said on Thursday that authorities will not be accepting the resignation letters from the trainee doctors and urged strikers to consider the consequences of their protest. “The power of doctors does not come from collective action,” he said. “Please remember that patients are waiting for you at this very moment.”

In the meantime, with junior doctors leaving their posts en masse, nurses are left to hold down the fort, carrying out tasks usually reserved for doctors, such as signing consent forms and dressing wounds, local media reported. 

The Korean Young Nurses Association has publicly urged doctors to refrain from joining the strike. “If more trainee doctors stage walkouts, nurses not only have to take on doctoral duties but they also have to deal with the patients’ complaints,” the group wrote in a post on social media. “If something goes wrong with the patient in the process, nurses are required by law to take all the responsibility.” 

Read More: To Address Dire Doctor Shortage, South Korea Proposes Less Medical Malpractice Punishment

The country’s 13,000 trainee doctors are crucial to its health care system, which has one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed economies.

The current strike comes amid protests over a government plan to add 2,000 slots to the annual quota of medical students, which now stands at around 3,000. The plan has garnered strong public support.

Critics say medical professionals are worried that the increased number of doctors will cause the field to lose some of its social prestige and competitive pay. Medicine is one of the most sought-after fields among Korean university students and their families—though many young doctors tend to gravitate towards more lucrative specialties like dermatology and cosmetic surgery.

The South Korean government has been actively trying to direct more doctors to comparatively less popular but more vital departments such as pediatrics, emergency medicine, and general surgery.

Meanwhile, some doctors argue that the expanded quota would not address the existing shortages in these departments, which are known for lower pay and long working hours. In a statement on Tuesday, the Korean Intern Resident Association said that, despite calls from the association to “reasonably estimate” the number of doctors needed, “the government announced a radical medical school quota policy to win political votes.”

Across social media, criticisms have been levied against the striking doctors, who in their confrontation with authorities over the issue have been likened to a “medical cartel.”

“If a patient who needs surgery does not receive it right away, they may die,” one person wrote on X. “Therefore, a strike by doctors is a punishable act.”

People’s Livelihood Countermeasures Committee, a civic group, said on Wednesday that it filed a police report against the striking residents as well as against the leaders of a doctors’ association for violating medical laws.

Authorities said on Wednesday that they would seek arrest warrants for leaders of the strike, and the government has issued back-to-work orders to more than 6,000 trainee doctors. Defying such an order can result in up to three years of medical license suspension, a 30 million won ($22,000) fine, or up to three years in prison. 

“If the illegal collective action actually results in damage to the lives and health of patients,” authorities said on Wednesday, the striking doctors “will be held accountable to the highest level.”

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