The Korea Herald


Ministry warns of stern action against doctors who go on strike

Doctors say they would backtrack from planned strike if government accepts their demands, including scrap of med school quota hike

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 13, 2024 - 14:55

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A patient walks into the Severance Hospital building in Seoul's Seodaemun-gu on Wednesday. (Yonhap) A patient walks into the Severance Hospital building in Seoul's Seodaemun-gu on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

Amid growing concerns about significant disruptions expected in South Korea's medical services due to a nationwide doctor strike next week, the government warned Thursday of a stern response, saying that such collective action would be considered an illegal "refusal to provide medical care."

The Korea Medical Association, Korea's largest doctors' group, has announced a one-day general strike for Tuesday, while medical professors at major hospitals have decided to initiate an indefinite walkout starting next week, sparking fears of a potential medical crisis. The KMA is calling on the government to suspend the planned increase in medical school quotas for 2025.

Doctors walking off the job to stage a rally is viewed as unilaterally canceling appointments for patients who have already made reservations, according to Jun Byung-wang, a policy chief at the Health Ministry. Undertaking such a move without the patient's consent or a specific plan for altering their course of treatment may constitute a refusal to provide medical care, which is prohibited by medical law, he said.

The medical law stipulates that a medical professional may not, upon receiving a request for medical treatment or assistance in childbirth, refuse to render his or her service without "any justifiable reason," according to Jun.

"The government will sternly respond to any illegality (in doctors' decision to strike) while maintaining the emergency system by prioritizing the lives and health of the people," he said.

Jun, however, did not further elaborate on what kind of stern action the government would take.

He also pointed out that the medical circle's collective refusal to provide medical treatment to patients is an act that "betrays the public's trust," adding that it does not help normalize the monthlong disruptions in medical services and junior doctors to return to their worksites.

He added that the government had issued orders for some 36,000 medical institutions nationwide to continue providing medical care and report to authorities if they decide to close the practice.

The government on Monday ordered private practitioners, who mostly make up the KMA with approximately 140,000 members to keep providing treatment and report to authorities by Thursday if they intend to shut down and join next week's one-day strike.

In addition, to prevent patients from bearing the brunt of the doctors' walkout, Jun said the ministry would open a hotline for patients to report damages after being denied treatment, vowing that the central government and each local government would do their best to protect and support them.

"(The doctors' decision to strike) not only piles on pressure and anxiety for patients waiting for treatment and surgery, but also poses harm to severely ill patients, such as those with cancer," Jun noted.

Doctors, however, remain unbent, saying they will only backtrack from their planned strike next week and any future course of action if the government accepts their proposal. The proposal includes scrapping the quota hike for the 2025 school year and suspending any penalties on junior doctors who walked out and students' collective class boycotts.

Choi Anna, the KMA's spokesperson, told reporters later in the day that the KMA would demand its proposal as early as late Thursday and see if the government changes course before Tuesday, the day of the planned all-out strike.

She also noted that the demands are the medical circle's "unified proposal," adding that medical groups, including the Medical Professors Association of Korea and the emergency committee of professors at 20 medical schools, have decided to make a unified voice through a single channel -- the KMA.

"There's no time to lose. ... The government should come to the negotiation table to review the medical reform policies with the KMA. Whether doctors will proceed with the June 18 strike and their future course of action are all in the government's hands," Choi said.

"Why would doctors go against the government's push for medical reform if it helps patients? We, doctors, are trying to stop the plan that causes a medical disaster and impacts the lives of our future generations," Choi said.