South Korea orders striking doctors to return to work as their walkouts burden hospital operations

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SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea on Wednesday officially ordered thousands of striking doctors to return to work immediately, a step that could lead to legal punishments if the doctors don’t end their walkouts, which have caused numerous cancellations of surgeries and other treatments at hospitals.

About 7,800 medical interns and residents in South Korea have walked off their jobs this week to protest the government’s push to recruit more medical students.

Officials say they want to increase the nationwide medical school admissions cap by 2,000 from next year to brace for South Korea’s rapidly aging population. But doctors’ groups have refuted the plan, saying universities aren’t ready to offer quality education to that many students. They also say the government’s plan would lead to increased public medical expenses since it lacks measures for how to raise low medical fees in some key professions.

The 2,000 additional admissions “is a nonsensical figure,” the Korean Intern Residents Association said in a statement Tuesday. “We hope the government will rethink its plan and formulate a policy that reflects the voices of trainee doctors.”

Junior doctors typically support senior doctors during surgeries and treat patients in hospitals. Their joint walkouts have burdened hospital operations. The Health Ministry said Wednesday that authorities have received 58 public complaints over the walkouts, mostly regarding indefinite delays of surgeries and cancellations of other medical treatments.

The government on Wednesday accused the trainee doctors of putting their rights before the lives of patients.

“The fundamental responsibility of medical personnel is caring for the lives and health of the people. I would say once again that any collective action that threatens this cannot be justified,” Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters.

Park said as of Tuesday night about 8,820 out of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors have submitted resignations to their hospitals. None of their resignations has been approved, but about 7,810 of the doctors have left their work sites, Park said.

Park said the government issued an official order for most of the striking doctors to return to work.

South Korea’s medical law allows the government to issue such back-to-work orders to doctors and other medical personnel when there are concerns about public health. If they refuse to abide by the order, they could face up to three years in prison or 30 million won ($22,480) in fines, a punishment that would also lead to the revocation of their medical licenses, according to the law.

Park didn’t detail possible punishments but said the government would enforce the law in a principled manner. He called for dialogue with the striking doctors.

Trainee doctors said the government’s return-to-work order was intimidation and must be withdrawn immediately.

To deal with the trainee doctors’ walkouts, the government has opened military hospitals to the public, extended the operating hours of public medical institutions and had emergency medical treatment centers stay open around the clock. But observers say if the walkouts are prolonged or joined by senior doctors, that could cause major disruptions in South Korea’s overall medical service.

South Korea has a total of 140,000 doctors. The Korea Medical Association said it plans to hold rallies to support the trainees but hasn’t determined whether to launch strikes.

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