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South Korea Health Ministry Set To Take Legal Action Against Doctors Over Strike

In a worsening health crisis, South Korea’s Health Minister, Cho Kyoo-hong, announced on Monday that authorities would commence inspections of hospitals to take legal action against trainee doctors who have persisted in a walkout against government plans to increase medical school admissions.

Approximately 9,000 resident and intern doctors, constituting about 70% of the country’s total, have been on strike since February 20, resulting in the cancellation of surgeries, treatments, and increased strain on emergency departments.

The government had issued warnings to the protesting trainee physicians, cautioning them about potential administrative and legal consequences, including the suspension of medical licenses, fines, or imprisonment if they did not resume work by the end of last month.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong emphasized the initiation of on-site inspections to identify non-compliant trainee doctors and take legal action accordingly.

“Please keep in mind that doctors who have not returned may experience serious problems in their personal career path,” Minister Cho warned during a televised briefing.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo later confirmed that the government intended to suspend the medical licenses of around 7,000 trainee doctors who had continued their strike. The prolonged standoff has led to concerns among patients, who are now calling for dialogue and swift resolution.

Patients outside a major Seoul hospital expressed their worries about the impact on treatments due to the ongoing confrontation. A patient, identified only by the surname Song, stated, “Doctors should first return and reassure patients and their families, and then have a dialogue with the government.”

Lee Hye-ji, a 37-year-old renal dialysis patient, voiced fears about potential complications in case of deteriorating health conditions, saying, “I would be extremely anxious if I ever need to undergo a kidney transplant surgery but there are no doctors available.”

Despite the government’s warnings and calls for a return to work, there has been little indication of a compromise from either side. Thousands of doctors rallied on Sunday, organized by the Korean Medical Association (KMA), in defiance of official calls for trainee physicians to end their strike.

The World Medical Association, representing physicians globally, released a statement on Sunday strongly condemning the South Korean government’s attempt to stifle the voices of elected leaders within the Korean Medical Association. It affirmed the right of doctors to collective action, including strikes.

The striking young doctors argue that the government should address pay and working conditions before increasing the number of physicians.

The government contends that the plan to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 starting in 2025 is crucial for a rapidly aging society with one of the lowest doctor-to-patient ratios among developed economies.

While the plan enjoys public support, with about 76% of respondents in favour, critics accuse President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government of insufficient consultation and picking a contentious fight ahead of the parliamentary elections in April.

Ozioma Samuel-Ugwuezi

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