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Ministry to order private doctors to maintain operation on day of strike

Return-to-work orders to be issued if closure rate of local clinics exceeds 30%

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 10, 2024 - 15:02

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A patient enters the Seoul National University Hospital in Jongno-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap) A patient enters the Seoul National University Hospital in Jongno-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap)

Amid an escalating dispute between the government and doctors over having more medical students, the government on Monday ordered private practitioners to keep providing treatment and report to authorities when they close practice to join a one-day strike led by the country's largest doctors' group next week.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong remarked during a government response meeting that the order is based on the Medical Service Act and a "minimum necessary measure" to protect the lives and the health of the public from the medical circle's collective action.

According to the ministry, each local government is instructed to order the community doctors under its jurisdiction to maintain operations on June 18, the day of the strike. Medical institutions that plan to shut down business that day must report to authorities by Thursday.

The government will also issue them return-to-work orders if the closure rate exceeds 30 percent, warning that they may face administrative action if they fail to comply.

Article 59 of the Medical Service Act stipulates that the Health Minister or a relevant mayor or province governor may issue an order to medical institutions or persons if it is considered necessary for policies on public health and medical services, the ministry explained.

The government has not reviewed issuing the same order to medical professors, Jun Byung-wang, a policy chief at the Health Ministry, told reporters during Monday's briefing, citing the low participation rate of professors who engaged in walkouts last month.

The strong measure against a planned doctor strike comes a day after the Korean Medical Association -- the largest lobbying group for doctors with some 140,000 members, mostly comprising self-employed physicians -- announced plans to take a day off from work and stage a rally next week to protest the government's quota hike.

Apart from the KMA, the emergency committee of professors at Seoul National University and Seoul National University Hospital will suspend outpatient treatment and surgeries beginning June 17.

Voicing grave concern and deep regret over the decision, Cho also said the government would initiate a legal review to determine whether the KMA has violated the Fair Trace Act by encouraging its members to take part in collective action.

The Fair Trade Act prohibits business associations from unfairly restricting competition or limiting the activities of individuals. Should the KMA have encouraged doctors to stage a strike, it may face a fine of up to 1 billion won ($725,320).

"The entire medical community's decision to collectively suspend medical services is an intolerable action. The right to life is a value that must be prioritized and protected under any circumstances. Collective refusal abandons doctors' ethical and professional responsibilities to put patients first," Cho noted.

Police also said the same day that if they receive any complaints regarding the planned strike, they will investigate according to law and procedures.