The Korea Herald


Hospitals allowed to process junior doctors' resignations

Junior doctors divided despite government's expectation of them to return, with some refusing to come back

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 4, 2024 - 17:49

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Medical workers walk in a hallway at a university hospital in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap) Medical workers walk in a hallway at a university hospital in Seoul on Monday. (Yonhap)

The Korean government said Tuesday that it would allow training hospitals to accept the resignations of trainee doctors who left their posts in protest of the medical school expansion plan over three months ago.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said during a briefing that the government would withdraw its return-to-work orders and allow hospitals to accept resignations submitted by junior doctors, while also making efforts to help them return if they choose to do so.

Cho added that each hospital chief could hold individual consultations with trainee doctors to determine whether they would return or resign.

"There's no deadline until when the hospital must accept the letters since the circumstances and the number of junior doctors of each hospital differ. But it would be nice if they could return as soon as possible," Cho told reporters.

Cho noted that the decision was made after adhering to the voices of patients, the public and the medical field to ensure that the protracted medical void doesn't grow further.

"The government also plans to halt administrative procedures to punish them if they head back so that they can concentrate on training without facing legal burdens," he said.

The ministry will also come up with measures to help junior doctors qualify for next year's fellowship exam and seek to change regulations to shorten the internship program for intern doctors so that they can continue even if they haven't completed the training.

In addition, Cho said the government would actively seek additional support measures for junior doctors who have remained onsite.

The government appears to have been preventing hospitals from processing the resignations to pressure trainee doctors to return to work and to stop them from looking for other positions at smaller hospitals.

But with the lift in restrictions, trainee doctors could now work as general practitioners at other medical clinics rather than at training hospitals, or return to where they had initially worked.

More than 90 percent of junior doctors have walked out from their hospitals since Feb. 20 to protest the government's decision to increase the medical school enrollment quota, despite repeated warnings that they may face administrative measures, including having their licenses suspended.

As of May 30, only 879 out of 10,509 resident doctors at 211 training hospitals have returned, according to the latest data provided by the Health Ministry.

Meanwhile, junior doctors appear to be split over whether to return or seek other career paths.

Those in their third or fourth year of residency training reportedly have mostly decided to return so that they can qualify for next year's fellowship exam and become specialists. Junior doctors in training for competitive medical specialties, such as dermatology and ophthalmology, are also considering heading back, because if they resign they will have to reapply.

However, Park Dan, who heads the emergency committee of the Korean Intern Resident Association and is an emergency medicine junior doctor at Severance Hospital, wrote in a message to junior doctors late Monday that he would "not return."