Trainee Doctors’ Strike Leads to Major Disruptions in South Korean Hospitals

SEOUL — A widespread strike by trainee doctors in South Korea has led to significant disruptions in medical services at major hospitals, as the deadlock with the government over a proposed increase in medical school enrollment quotas continues with little sign of resolution. A small number of junior doctors have returned to work, but the vast majority remain on strike.

According to Yonhap News Agency, about 9,000 trainee doctors have been absent from their jobs for nine consecutive days, in protest against the government's directive to increase the enrollment quota for medical schools by 2,000 next year, up from the current 3,058. President Yoon Suk Yeol has defended the plan as a critical step to address the shortage of medical professionals in the country, stating that it is not open to negotiation or compromise.

The government has taken a firm stance against the strikers, with the health ministry filing police complaints against five doctors associated with the Korea Medical Association for allegedly violating medical laws and obstructing justice. Efforts to compel the trainee doctors back to work have escalated, with officials personally delivering return-to-work orders to their homes, a method aimed at circumventing avoidance tactics previously employed by the doctors, such as turning off their phones to ignore text message orders.

Despite threats of license suspension and legal action, the government has assured that those who comply with the order to return by Thursday will not face any repercussions for their participation in the strike. However, the ministry has significantly increased the number of doctors ordered to return to work, from 7,036 to 9,267, in an effort to pressure those still on leave.

A small number of doctors have begun to return to their posts; Konkuk University Medical Center in Seoul reported that 12 out of approximately 200 trainee doctors had resumed work. Nevertheless, the ongoing strike has halved the number of surgeries at major hospitals and prompted the temporary authorization for nurses to perform certain duties typically reserved for doctors, raising concerns about patient safety.

The government's push to increase the medical workforce comes in response to a critical shortage of doctors, especially in rural regions and specialized fields such as high-risk surgeries and emergency medicine. However, the medical community argues that improving conditions to protect doctors from malpractice suits and enhancing compensation would be more effective strategies for encouraging physicians to work in underserved areas.

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