The Korea Herald


Will striking doctors go the distance?

Antitrust regulator launches on-site inspection into KMA on suspicions of forcing to join walkouts

By Park Jun-hee

Published : June 19, 2024 - 14:43

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A notice at a private clinic in Seoul informing patients that it would close business on June 18-19 (Yonhap) A notice at a private clinic in Seoul informing patients that it would close business on June 18-19 (Yonhap)

Observers expressed skepticism on Wednesday about the likelihood of doctors being able to sustain their current walkout indefinitely, citing the financial strain on those who run their own clinics and the logistical challenges of rescheduling treatments.

Physicians who run local clinics are unlikely to join the move due to the financial impact they would bear if they shut down their practices and the potential loss of trust from their patients, they said. Fewer than 10 percent joined the previous strike in 2020.

Approximately 14.9 percent of the 36,059 community hospitals, excluding dental and oriental medicine clinics, took a day off as of Tuesday at 4 p.m. to participate in Tuesday's one-day strike led by the Korean Medical Association, the largest association of doctors here, according to the Health Ministry. The figure was less than half of the corresponding tally for the weekslong walkout staged by doctors in August 2020, when some 32.6 percent closed to oppose a smaller, similar expansion plan.

A senior official at Seoul St. Mary's Hospital, one of the nation's top medical institutions, also forecasted a low participation rate.

"It's nearly impossible for professors to fully adjust their outpatient treatment and surgery schedules and inform patients about the postponements, considering the number of patients they see. Some patients need to see their doctors," the official told The Korea Herald.

Lee Dong-wook, who heads the GyeongGi-Do Medical Association, also said Wednesday that the KMA's abrupt announcement of an indefinite strike brought extreme confusion to the medical sector.

"Regardless of the feasibility of the strike and its appropriateness, all members' voices should be respected when deciding on a critical issue (such as going on strike)," he said in a statement.

In their latest row with the government over medical reform, the KMA representing some 140,000 doctors, mostly private practitioners threatened it would go on an indefinite strike starting June 27 if doctors' "rightful demands" are not accepted by the government.

The three requests are revisiting the quota hike from scratch, supplementing key points in the government's policy package for essential medical services and canceling all penalties against junior doctors who left their worksites and students boycotting classes.

The government, which regards the walkout as illegal, has dismissed such requests, saying that it isn't appropriate for the KMA to make policy demands as a condition for not breaking the law.

As the likelihood of the government reversing its decision is slim, and if the KMA proceeds with its planned strike, self-employed physicians and medical professors will walk out starting next week. The KMA hasn't specified the scope of the strike, such as whether it would leave emergency rooms and intensive care units open.

pouring cold water The KMA, Korean Academy of Medical Sciences, Medical Professors Association of Korea, the emergency committee of professors at 20 medical schools and the head of the emergency committee of medical professors of Seoul National University held a closed-door meeting late Wednesday to discuss their future course of action.

The Korean Medical Association's headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap) The Korean Medical Association's headquarters in Yongsan-gu, central Seoul (Yonhap)

Meanwhile, the Fair Trade Commission on Wednesday launched an on-site inspection into the KMA on suspicions that it had tried to coerce its members to join Tuesday's one-day strike.

The inspection comes after the Health Ministry referred the KMA to the regulator on Monday, claiming its role in leading doctors' strikes violates the law.

The country's Fair Trade Act prohibits business associations from "unfairly restricting competition or limiting business activities of individuals."

Any violation is subject to a fine of up to 1 billion won ($724,000) for the organization. The organization's chief or others in charge can be fined up to 200 million won or sentenced to three years in prison.

The FTC had previously issued corrective orders and other penalties to KMA for its strikes in 2000 and 2014, respectively, when it staged strikes to protest the government's pharmaceutical reform and telemedicine bill proposal.

The regulator said it plans to take "stern action" if the KMA has confirmed to have violated the law, declining to comment further.

Later in the day, the KMA expressed regrets over the government's "abuse of power" over the medical community's opposition to the government's medical policies, noting that its members "voluntarily participated" in the walkout.