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[Editorial] No end in sight

Government clash with doctors drags on with no signs of breakthrough

By Korea Herald

Published : March 4, 2024 - 05:29

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The confrontation between the government and doctors intensified over the weekend, with neither side willing to seek a compromise that is urgently needed by patients waiting for delayed surgeries and treatments to resume.

Some 20,000 doctors took part in a rally in Seoul on Sunday in protest against the government’s plan to increase the annual medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 starting from next year.

“If the government ignores doctors’ efforts, it will face strong resistance from people,” Kim Taek-woo, head of the Korea Medical Association’s emergency response committee, said in his opening remarks at the rally.

“The government unilaterally promoted policies that doctors would never accept in the name of health care reform,” Kim said. “This is why doctors who have been doing their job with a sense of mission have left the medical field, giving up their future voluntarily.”

Kim called on the government to talk with the KMA’s emergency response committee as well as trainee doctors if it wants to address growing public concerns and the inconveniences being caused for patients.

The clash, however, is unlikely to be resolved with a peaceful negotiation in consideration of recent developments. The demonstration, for instance, came after the government raided homes and offices linked to the KMA on Friday, in a signal that it would take punitive action should the strike by trainee doctors continue.

The raids targeted incumbent and former KMA officials who allegedly encouraged intern and resident doctors to walk off the job, following a complaint filed by the Health Ministry last month.

In a fiery response to the raids, the KMA claimed the government is suppressing the freedoms and human rights of doctors, and that the status of the country’s 140,000 doctors as free citizens has not been recognized.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare reacted to the KMA with equally strong words, saying that “some doctors are taking illegal collective action and abetting the junior doctors’ strike.” The ministry said the raids were not intended to threaten the KMA or put pressure on doctors in general, adding that it will push forward with the medical reform initiative.

Last week, the government repeatedly asked junior doctors who had walked off the job to return to work by Thursday. Failing to do so would result in punishment, including the suspension of medical licenses, the government warned.

But the government’s pleas were largely unheeded, as only 565 of over 9,000 doctors had returned as of Thursday afternoon.

While the government has not eased its pressure on doctors, a dispute flared up over rumors about pharmaceutical salespeople being forced to join the Sunday's rally, which prompted the presidential official to announce it would respond with “zero tolerance” to such coercive acts.

Several posts popped up in online communities ahead of the rally, claiming that some doctors were forcing salespeople at pharmaceutical firms to take part in the demonstration, saying that if they did not show up the doctors would change drugs.

At present, both the government and doctors are under pressure to find a breakthrough, as the number of patients enduring unnecessary pain and suffering is on the rise. More patients and their families are scrambling to find emergency care. Media outlets reported the death of a man in his 80s, who died while going to seven different hospitals, as well as a pregnant woman’s miscarriage and other disruptions in surgeries due to the lack of trainee doctors.

Given the troubling situation, both the government and doctors have to consider addressing the dire situations of patients as soon as possible as a top priority and realize that the looming suspension of licenses involving trainee doctors would only put patients in a more miserable state.