Mass Walkout by Trainee Doctors Disrupts Medical Services in South Korea

SEOUL — Medical services at major hospitals across South Korea have been significantly disrupted due to an ongoing mass walkout by trainee doctors, which is nearing a critical government-imposed deadline for their return to work. Despite the looming deadline, only a small fraction of the junior doctors have resumed their duties.

According to Yonhap News Agency, approximately 9,000 trainee doctors have been on strike for nine consecutive days, protesting against the government's decision to increase the medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 next year, up from the current 3,058. The government has issued an ultimatum, demanding that the doctors return to work by Thursday or face severe consequences, including the suspension of licenses and potential indictment. However, both the government and the striking doctors appear to be standing firm in their positions.

The heart of the controversy lies in the government's plan, which President Yoon Suk Yeol has defended as a "minimum necessary measure" to combat a doctor shortage in the country. He emphasized that the issue "cannot and should not be a subject for negotiation or compromise." Prime Minister Han Duck-soo also urged the striking doctors to return to their posts, stating that abandoning patients is inexcusable under any circumstances.

Amid these tensions, the health ministry has taken a hard-line stance, filing complaints against five doctors affiliated with the Korea Medical Association for allegedly violating medical laws and obstructing justice. Additionally, officials have begun making house calls to deliver back-to-work orders personally, a move aimed at circumventing the doctors' previous attempts to ignore such orders by turning off their phones.

Despite these measures, Prime Minister Han has stated that the call for doctors to return to work is not intended as a punishment but rather a plea for them to resume their essential roles in patient care. The government has assured that those who comply with the return-to-work order by the deadline will not face repercussions for their participation in the strike.

As the deadline approaches, a handful of trainee doctors have started returning to their duties, with 12 out of approximately 200 resuming work at Konkuk University Medical Center in Seoul. However, the strike's impact has been profound, with reports indicating a significant reduction in the number of surgeries performed at major hospitals and an increased reliance on nurses to perform tasks traditionally reserved for doctors.

The government's efforts to address the doctor shortage, particularly in rural areas and specialized fields, have been met with resistance from the medical community. Doctors argue that instead of increasing enrollment quotas, the focus should be on enhancing protections against malpractice suits and improving compensation to attract more physicians to underserved areas.

scroll to top