South Korea Expands Nurses’ Roles Amid Trainee Doctors’ Walkout

SEOUL — As the walkout by approximately 12,000 trainee doctors reached its 18th day, causing significant disruptions in healthcare services, South Korea's health ministry authorized an expansion of nurses' roles in emergency units to mitigate the impact of medical staff shortages. This decision comes in the wake of a mass protest against a government proposal to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 next year, with about 93 percent of trainee doctors abstaining from work.

According to Yonhap News Agency, To address the shortfall, military hospital emergency units have been made accessible to the general public, and nurses at major hospitals are now formally permitted to perform critical tasks such as CPR and administer medication to emergency patients.

The health ministry initiated a pilot program last month, allowing nurses to assume certain duties typically performed by doctors, albeit in a limited scope. This move aims to alleviate the strain on healthcare facilities, which have seen a spate of surgery cancellations and delays in emergency treatments. Despite the government's appeal for trainee doctors to resume work by February's end, defiance among the interns and residents persists. In response to the growing number of absences, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo announced plans to establish a hotline to support the few trainee doctors who continued to work, amidst concerns of backlash. The government has also signaled its intention to take legal steps against those threatening or obstructing colleagues from returning to their duties.

Acknowledging that critical patient care remains largely uninterrupted, Park noted some elective surgeries have been delayed. The ministry is also exploring ways to formally expand the role of nurses through community consultations, alongside initiating legal action against junior doctors defying orders, with potential license suspensions. This situation underscores the government's broader strategy to address doctor shortages, especially in rural areas and essential medical specialties, amidst a rapidly aging population. However, the medical community has voiced concerns that increasing doctor numbers could compromise the quality of medical education and services, advocating instead for improved compensation and legal protections.

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