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South Korean Trainee Doctors Continue Strike, Risking Prosecution

South Korean doctors take part in a protest against the government medical policy in front of the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2024.
South Korean doctors take part in a protest against the government medical policy in front of the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 25, 2024.

Thousands of striking South Korean trainee doctors have defied an ultimatum to go back to work as they continue to protest a government plan to increase medical school enrollments.

The walkouts have already caused the delay or cancellation of hundreds of surgeries and medical treatments, slowing the function of hospitals in the country, according to South Korea’s Ministry of Health and Welfare.

The medical interns and residents had until Thursday to end their walkout, but the deadline passed without a resolution. The striking doctors began their walkout almost two weeks ago and have carried on despite the risk of prosecution and suspension of their medical licenses.

At issue is the government’s plan to admit 2,000 more applicants to medical schools next year to increase to 10,000 the number of new doctors in the country by 2035.

Officials say the increase is necessary to address South Korea’s aging population, and because South Korea has the lowest doctor-to-population ratio of developed countries.

According to strikers, the plan to admit new students is not sustainable because the universities are not equipped to accommodate and educate the number of new students. They say the plan fails to address the shortage of doctors in low-paying, but essential specialties, such as emergency medicine and pediatrics.

Some critics say the striking doctors are just worried about lower incomes due to new physicians flooding the field.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-Soo joined negotiation efforts on Thursday, spending three hours meeting with strikers but to no avail. Only five or six trainee doctors showed up out of the 94 invited by officials.

As of Wednesday night, around 9,076 of the country’s 13,000 medical interns and residents had not returned to work, according to the health ministry.

"We've said that we won't hold them responsible for leaving their worksites if they return by today," Park Min-soo told a briefing. "Doctors are there to serve patients, and those patients are anxiously waiting for you. This isn't the way to protest against the government."

Officials say that because Friday is a holiday in South Korea, formal steps are to be taken starting March 4, when doctors who missed the return-to-work orders will begin to receive notices about their suspended licenses and have the opportunity to respond.

Some information for this report was provided by Reuters and The Associated Press.

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