S Korea deploys military reinforcements to hospitals hit by doctors strike

Nearly 12,000 trainee doctors from 100 hospitals have walked out over government reform plans.

Three doctors walking down a corridor in South Korea. They are walking away from the camera.
Medical workers at Severance Hospital in Seoul [Kim Soo-hyeon/Reuters]

South Korea has said it will deploy military physicians and doctors from public health centres to hospitals hit by a weeks-long walkout by trainee doctors over government reform plans.

Some 20 military surgeons along with 138 public health doctors will be assigned to 20 hospitals for four weeks, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said at a meeting on Sunday.

The number of military physicians called on to help so far was only a small fraction of the roughly 2,400 military doctors, according to a Defence Ministry briefing.

Some 12,000 trainee doctors at 100 hospitals went on strike on February 20 over government plans to increase the number of places available at medical schools to tackle shortages amid a rapidly ageing population.

Some hospitals have had to turn away patients and delay medical procedures as a result of the action.

The authorities have been trying to coax the doctors to return to work by warning them that their medical licences could be suspended but the threat seems to have had little impact.

On Monday, the Health Ministry said it had sent administrative notifications, the first step to suspending the doctors’ medical licences, to thousands of trainee doctors after they defied specific orders telling them to return to their hospitals.

“As of March 8 [notifications] have been sent to more than 4,900 trainee doctors,” Chun Byung-wang, the director of the health and medical policy division at the Health Ministry, told reporters.

The government previously warned the medics that they faced a three-month suspension of their licences, a punishment which, it said, would delay by at least a year their ability to qualify as specialists.

Chun urged them to return to their patients.

“The government will take into account the circumstance and protect trainee doctors if they return to work before the administrative measure is complete,” he said, indicating doctors who come back to work now could avoid punishment.

“The government will not give up dialogue. The door for dialogue is always open… The government will respect and listen to opinions of the medical community as a companion for the medical reforms,” he added.

The government has the power to order doctors back to work if it deems there is a serious risk to lives and public health.

The government wants to increase annual medical school admissions by 2,000 places starting from next year to address shortages but the doctors argue that simply adding more medical students will not address concerns about pay and working conditions.

A survey published last week by the Yonhap news agency found that 84 percent of respondents supported adding more doctors, while 43 percent said striking physicians should be punished severely.

Source: News Agencies