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Nurses urge trainee doctors to return

Nurses fear lack of legal protection if they fill in some of absent doctors' practice

Feb. 20, 2024 - 15:41 By Lee Jung-joo
Patients wait to be treated at one of the five major hospitals in Seoul. (Yonhap)

A group of nurses in Korea urged doctors to come back to their duties, stressing that its their duty to protect patients.

“We also believe that the government’s sudden announcement to increase medical school enrollment quota is excessive. We also doubt that the quality of education from medical schools following the quota increase will be as good as the government claims it will be,” wrote the Korean Young Nurses Association on Instagram.

“Nevertheless, we request for you to not leave the field. Fight for your beliefs, not through strikes but in the field. Please don’t allow your fellow colleagues to practice medical care illegally.”

Frustration has sparked among nurses who have been forced to take on tasks that are normally done by doctors after doctors began to take joint action in protest of the government’s plan to increase the annual student enrollment quota at medical schools from 2025.

In a post written on Blind, a workplace community app, on Monday a nurse who allegedly works at one of the five major hospitals in Seoul wrote that nurses “are doing the work that was normally done by trainee doctors.”

“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. If something goes wrong with the patient in the process, nurses are required by law to take all the responsibility,” the nurse wrote.

According to the Korean Health and Medical Workers Union, “illegal medical care” has already begun to take place, as nurses were left to take on the duties of doctors such as signing consent forms, dressing wounds, conducting arterial blood gas tests and managing excretion.

As doctors warned of staging walkouts to protest against the government, the Ministry of Health and Welfare stated that it will actively expand the number of telemedicine treatments and make active use of physician assistants.

There are currently around 10,000 physician assistants in Korea and are responsible for assisting with medical procedures and to assist in medical emergencies. However, as there is not a separate physician assistant license under the Medical Service Act, it is also illegal for physician assistants to practice medical procedures that would normally be conducted by the physicians themselves. According to the Medical Service Act, nurses are only allowed to assist in medical treatment under the guidance of doctors.

With more gaps emerging in the medical field following the doctors’ walkout, the Korean Nurses Association claimed that nurses will participate in “trying to minimize the harm (of the walkout) and filling in medical gaps.”

“It is true that there has been an increasing number of complaints from nurses having to deal with both their usual duties and also those that were normally done by doctors. But we are healthcare providers, and our primary responsibility is to protect our patients’ lives and overall health,” told a KNA official to The Korea Herald. “However, we are concerned that we may be held legally responsible in the future for doing work outside of our usual duties.”

The KNA issued a joint statement on Monday saying that they are willing to provide medical assistance outside of their statutory duties and demanded the government provide legal protection so that they won't be criminalized in the future.

Meanwhile, the Health Ministry stated that 6,415 trainee doctors have submitted their letters of resignation across 100 hospitals nationwide, which accounts for 55 percent of the total number of trainee doctors in these hospitals. Of them, 1,630 trainee doctors, or 25 percent of those who submitted their resignations have stopped providing medical assistance.