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[Editorial] Doctors’ strike

Collective action by doctors over medical school quota feared to paralyze services

June 10, 2024 - 05:30 By Korea Herald

The Korea Medical Association, South Korea’s largest organization of doctors, said in a press briefing Sunday that it would stage a walkout and a rally on June 18, signaling another clash between doctors and the government over its medical school quota hike.

The KMA, which has more than 129,000 members, said that in the survey conducted last week more than 90 percent of the respondents voted to support the “strong protest” against the government’s increase in admission quotas. Lim Hyun-taek, who heads the KMA, pledged to use “every possible method” to launch an all-out resistance.

The KMA is expected to push ahead with the walkout unless it reaches a compromise with the government. But the outlook remains murky as both parties stand firm in their positions over the administrative measures against more than 12,000 junior doctors who have been off the job since February in protest of the government’s plan to increase the medical school admission quota.

The KMA’s decision Sunday is feared to deepen confrontations between doctors and the government, dashing public hopes for medical services to return to normal after the quota was finalized. On May 24, the Korean Council for University Education approved the hike of 1,469 additional medical school seats at 31 universities. Including an additional 40 seats at another university, the total medical school quota for 2025 comes to 4,567, up 1,509 from the current 3,058.

In a bid to stop prolonged medical service disruptions, the government recently softened its stance by withdrawing its return-to-work order and suspending administrative steps against trainee doctors, allowing them to seek jobs at other hospitals or return to their training hospitals.

However, most junior doctors remain reluctant to return despite the government’s gesture. The KMA and other medical organizations continue to demand that the government cancel administrative measures against the trainee doctors, instead of suspending the punitive steps.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Sunday expressed regret over the planned strike by doctors. “The walkout could put enormous pressure on the emergency medical system and leave deep scars for the entire Korean society,” he said.

Han also stressed that trainee doctors who return to hospitals will not face any disadvantages including administrative measures.

The walkout by doctors marks the first collective action by the KMA since the dispute emerged in the country’s medical services sector, with the absence of medical interns and residents resulting in delays and disruptions for surgeries and treatments at major hospitals.

Considering the records of the past strikes by the KMA, many local clinics may opt not to join the strike, but things could be different this time because medical professors are set to move in solidarity with the junior doctors, experts have warned.

Professors at four hospitals affiliated with Seoul National University voted to go on strike from June 17 if the dispute over striking trainee doctors was not resolved. The hospitals conducted surveys after the Health Ministry announced last week it would allow hospitals to accept the resignations of trainee doctors.

An emergency response committee of the hospitals said staging a strike is “the only option available” to normalize medical services, clarifying that the collective action would not affect essential services such as emergency rooms and intensive care units. The committee also said doctors will continue to care for patients with severe illnesses and those who require emergency treatment.

An all-out strike by doctors at this point could worsen the already deteriorating conditions of the country’s medical services. The government and doctors must sit down again to find ways to resolve an impasse and avoid a much-dreaded strike that puts patients at critical risk.