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South Korea moves to suspend striking doctors’ licenses

South Korea’s government on Monday began taking steps to suspend the licenses of junior doctors still on strike, several days after its February 29 deadline for them to return to work passed.

Roughly 10,000 physicians walked out almost two weeks ago in a protest against government plans to drastically increase the annual medical student intake.

The prolonged strike has led to the cancellation of treatments and surgeries, with the government raising its public health alert to its highest level in response.

South Korean law permits the government to order medical professionals to end strike actions or risk suspension or even imprisonment if it perceives public health risks because of their absence.

Doctors protested in numbers on Sunday in the capital, including many who are not on strike, with banners carrying mottos like “we are not criminals.”

Government moves to suspend licenses

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said at a press conference on Monday that the number of doctors returning to work since the government deadline expired “has been minimal.”

Around 9,000 remained on strike and only 565 had returned, according to Park.

“Starting today the government is enforcing legal measure,” he said, saying that inspections would be conducted at hospitals to confirm which doctors were absent.

South Korean Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo speaks during a briefing at the government complex in Sejong, South Korea, Monday, March 4, 2024.
Park Min-soo said doctors still on strike would face a three-month suspension of their license and potentially damaged career prospectsImage: Bae Jae-man/Yonhap/AP Photo/picture alliance

“If they violate the government’s back-to-work order, a three-month suspension is inevitable,” Park said. “We again strongly urge them to return to patients.”

The minister warned that such a suspension would lead to a delay of at least a year in the doctors getting their specialization medical certificate and could damage their career prospects.

Plans to amp up recruitment prompted the walkout

The government in South Korea is aiming to increase medical school admissions by 65% — from roughly 3,000 to around 5,000 a year — saying that the country is struggling with an ageing population and one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed nations.

South Korea’s birth rate hits record low

Medical professionals have argued the reform will erode the quality of medical education and later service. They also say it could lead to inflated costs and unnecessary treatments, and argue that new recruits will gravitate towards higher-paying, non-essential areas like plastic surgery and dermatology.

Critics, however, argue that the doctors are more interested in protecting their salaries and status. Polls suggest around three-quarters of the public oppose the work stoppages.

The striking junior doctors only make up a fraction of the roughly 140,000 doctors in South Korea. However, they also account for almost half the staff at some major mainly urban hospitals, where they assist senior doctors while training.

Doctors hold a banner during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March 3, 2024.
Medical professionals who are not part of the strike action joined a protest in solidarity in Seoul on SundayImage: Ahn Young-joon/AP Photo/picture alliance

Senior doctors have not joined the strike but have staged a series of protests to show their support for it.

“The government is very aware of the reasons why all doctors are opposing the increase in the medical school admissions but are exploiting policies to turn doctors into slaves forever,” Kim Taek-woo of the Korea Medical Association said at a rally in Seoul on Sunday.

In theory, medical professionals who strike against government orders in South Korea can face the suspension of their license or a fine or even up to three years in prison.

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