Gov’t issues ultimatum for trainee doctors to return to work

February 26, 2024

The government issued an ultimatum on Monday to trainee doctors who stopped work for a seventh day to protest against the government’s plan to boost medical students, warning that it could begin suspending the licenses of trainee doctors next month unless they return to work soon.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters that trainee doctors who refused to return to work by Thursday could start facing punishment the following day amid deepening concerns over public health as doctors and the government were on a collision course over the plan to raise the medical school admission quota by 2,000 seats next year.

“Starting in March, the suspension of doctors’ licenses for a minimum of three months will become unavoidable for those who fail to return under the law and principle, along with judicial measures, such as investigations and prosecutions,” Park said.

“It should be noted that a license suspension creates a record that may impact future career paths, including opportunities for employment abroad,” he added.

Park said the government will spare no effort to continue talks with the medical community.

“We urge the medical community to propose representatives that can gather opinions,” Park said. “We hope to discuss ways to seek medical reform through talks and debates, instead of collective actions.”

So far, 9,006 trainee doctors at hospitals have walked off their jobs, and 10,034 trainee doctors have submitted their resignations. There are some 13,000 trainee doctors in South Korea.

The government said it will not hold trainee doctors accountable if they return to work by Thursday.

Adding to the chaos at hospitals, fellow doctors, who have been stepping in to cover the absence of trainee doctors on leave, were observed joining the collective action.

“There are circulating rumors that doctors, who have completed their residency and were slated to commence their fellowship Friday, are engaging in an unusual movement,” an official from a major hospital in Seoul said.

At Chosun University Hospital in Gwangju, 267 kilometers southeast of Seoul, 12 out of 14 fellows decided not to renew their contracts and leave in March.

Newly graduated medical students also recently declined internships, signaling an extended shortage of doctors on duty at major hospitals.

Hospitals across the nation continued to grapple with ongoing disruptions, with Severance Hospital in Seoul halving its operation schedule. Samsung Medical Center also reportedly reduced the number by 45 to 50 percent.

Other major hospitals, including the Catholic University of Korea Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital and Seoul National University Hospital, took similar moves amid the shortage of doctors on duty.

The previous day, the government initiated moves to take legal action against doctors engaging in illegal collective actions, with the justice ministry assigning a prosecutor to the health ministry to offer advice.

The government has been warning that those leading the collective action could face arrest and doctors involved in a strike could have their medical licenses canceled.

South Korea has been pushing to increase the number of medical freshmen to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine.

Doctors, however, argue that the government should rather focus on protecting them from malpractice suits and improving compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such unpopular areas.

The Korea Medical Association (KMA) vowed to protect the trainee doctors from legal measures, calling the government’s moves an “unbelievable level of blackmail.”

“Canceling medical licenses and taking legal actions are an act of destroying all ways trainee doctors can go back to their hospitals, and if the trainee doctors get hurt, all doctors will be enraged to cause chaos in the medical field,” Joo Soo-ho, a KMA spokesperson, said in a press briefing.

The KMA also called on medical schools to not cooperate with the government on reviewing the student quota for each school, saying the government’s claim the country will suffer a shortage of medical staff in coming years is faulty.

Meanwhile, professors from Seoul National University’s medical school urged the government to engage in dialogue with medical professors, emphasizing the importance of persuasion over coercion.

“If the government takes unjustifiable actions against our students, we will also take measures against such legal threats,” the professors said in a joint statement, calling for the government to establish a channel for dialogue.