Some trainee doctors return to hospitals amid protracted walkouts

May 3, 2024

Some trainee doctors have returned to their worksites, a senior health ministry official said Friday, amid prolonged walkouts by medical interns and residents against the government’s plan to boost the number of medical students.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo stopped short of providing details on how many junior doctors returned to hospitals, but said, “Although not many, a small number of trainee doctors have returned.”

It was unclear why some trainee doctors went back to hospitals, but media reports have said some junior doctors suffered financial difficulties due to the walkouts that began late February.

Park also renewed calls for junior doctors to return to hospitals, saying, “There is nothing that can be earned through the collective action. We urge them to return to their positions and take care of patients.”

Earlier in the day, Park said the government expects no significant disruptions in medical services despite medical professors taking one day off per week in solidarity with junior doctors.

Medical professors, who are senior doctors, at Asan Medical Center and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital decided to take a day off on Friday, expressing fatigue from the prolonged walkout of junior doctors.

Some professors at Samsung Medical Center, Severance Hospital, and Seoul National University Hospital also suspended surgeries and treatment for outpatients for a day earlier this week.

“While some medical professors vowed to take a day off on Friday, we expect no major disruptions, including an all-out suspension of treatments,” Park told reporters.

The five major hospitals play a critical role in treating critically ill patients in the country.

Other regional hospitals, including Chungbuk National University Hospital and Konyang University Hospital, also participated in the move. The hospitals, however, noted that no outpatient treatments were scheduled for the day.

About 12,000 trainee doctors have left their worksites since Feb. 20 in protest of the plan to boost the number of medical students by 2,000, causing delays in medical treatments, with some emergency rooms partially limiting their treatment of critically ill patients.

The government has formally launched a presidential committee to resolve the standoff, but doctors boycotted it.

The government has been maintaining that it is also open to one-on-one dialogue with the medical community, but doctors have faced challenges in establishing a unified representative body.

“The government is leaving the spot open for the Korean Medical Association and trainee doctors at the medical reform committee,” Park said, noting that the government is willing to engage in talks “anytime without formal constraints.”

Meanwhile, local universities have finalized their decisions to increase the combined medical school admission quota for next year by around 1,500 seats, less than the 2,000 slots the government had initially permitted.

The adjustment came after the government allowed schools to flexibly adjust their respective admission quotas for next year within the 50 percent to 100 percent range of their newly allotted quotas.