South Korea Orders Protesting Doctors to Return to Work or Face Legal Action

By Trisha Andrada

Feb 21, 2024 07:59 AM EST

South Korea's attempt to recruit more medical students has been met with protests by around 7,800 medical interns and residents, who have walked off their work this week.

On Wednesday, the authorities formally demanded that the thousands of physicians on strike return to work without delay. Legal consequences may be imposed if the doctors continue their walkouts, which have led to the postponement of many operations and other procedures at hospitals. 

(Photo : JUNG YEON-JE / AFP via Getty Images)
Doctors hold placards reading "Stop populist medical policy!" during a rally to protest against the government's plan to raise the annual enrolment quota at medical schools, near the presidential office in Seoul on February 21, 2024.

South Korea Plans to Expand Medical Staff

To prepare for the fast-aging population in South Korea, the Associated Press reported that officials have stated their intention to raise the national ceiling on medical school admissions by 2,000 starting next year. 

Medical organizations, however, have spoken out against the proposal, arguing that schools lack the resources to teach that many students adequately.

Since the government's proposal does not address how to boost low medical costs in many important professions, they argued that it would cause public medical spending to rise.

Korean Intern Residents Association slammed the 2,000 extra admissions as "a nonsensical figure" in a statement released Tuesday.

"We hope the government will rethink its plan and formulate a policy that reflects the voices of trainee doctors," the group noted.

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Back-To-Work Order by South Korea Government

The combined walkouts of junior and senior physicians have impacted the hospital's operations. On Wednesday, the Health Ministry said that 58 public complaints about the protests had been received.

Most of these concerns were with the indefinite postponement or cancellation of operations and other medical procedures. The government accused trainee physicians of prioritizing their own rights before patients' lives.

According to Vice Health Minister Park Min-Soo, as of Tuesday night, about 8,820 of the 13,000 trainee physicians in the nation had resigned. Also, around 7,810 physicians have departed their respective work sites, although none of their resignations have been approved.

Park said the government ordered most physicians on strike to return to work. The legislation stated that they risk losing their medical licenses and spending up to three years in jail or paying penalties of 30 million won ($22,480) if they disobey the order.

However, doctors in training have demanded the swift revocation of the government's return-to-work decree, claiming it constitutes an act of intimidation.

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