Trainee doctors who don’t return to work by Thursday will face legal consequences, Korea warns

Posted on : 2024-02-27 17:42 KST Modified on : 2024-02-27 17:42 KST
The country’s second vice health minister said that one-year medical license suspensions and formal indictments await interns and residents who do not obey the back-to-work order
Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo delivers a briefing at the central government complex in Sejong on Feb. 26, 2024. (courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Welfare)
Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo delivers a briefing at the central government complex in Sejong on Feb. 26, 2024. (courtesy of the Ministry of Health and Welfare)

The South Korean government has given medical interns and residents an ultimatum: obey the government’s order to return to work by Thursday or face legal consequences — including the suspension of their medical licenses.

With the rift between the government and physicians’ groups deepening, the administration has given its final warning. In response, doctors lobbies are adamant that the government should first ditch its plans to raise the cap on admissions at medical schools.

During a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasure Headquarters briefing on Monday, KOrae’s second vice health minister, Park Min-soo, said that the ministry “urges medical interns and residents to return to work by Feb. 29.”

“Starting March 1, those who have not returned to hospitals will face legal consequences, such as having their medical licenses suspended for at least three months as well as being formally indicted and placed on trial,” he said. 

As it stands, the Medical Service Act states that the government may issue one-year suspensions of medical licenses for medical workers who do not follow government orders to return to work. 

Despite the government’s warnings, 10,034 medical residents and interns in around 100 training hospitals nationwide handed in resignations as of 7 pm on Friday, and 7,038 received orders to return to work as of Feb. 21.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare is not backing down from its decision to raise the cap on admissions, but is calling for discussion and debate.

“Aside from the issue of the increase in admissions, we are open to all suggestions regarding the policy,” said Park during the briefing. “We wish to seek dialogue with a collective body that represents the opinion of all in the medical field.”

This seems to be an attempt to open up the negotiating table, as the Korean Medical Association will not be directly affected by the increase in medical school admissions, and some medical school faculty are expressing dissatisfaction with the collective action.

Faculty members at medical schools are highlighting the importance of persuasion, rather than aggression.

In a statement, the emergency committee of the Seoul National University College of Medicine faculty association announced, “Persuasion, rather than aggression or blackmail, is the only way to sway the hearts of medical residents and interns.” 

The association also suggested that there be “regular talks” with medical school faculty oriented at finding a solution. 

The KMA has maintained a different tone. 

“The claim that there is a lack of doctors in this country is false,” the association said. “Dismissing the KMA as an organization that only stands for a select group of doctors and/or private practitioners will make it impossible to go ahead with talks.”

President Yoon Suk-yeol held a meeting with senior presidential secretaries at the presidential office in Yongsan, to discuss the issue that day. 

“The heart of welfare lies in enabling citizens to receive timely, appropriate treatment whenever they are in pain, and this is the constitutional responsibility of the state,” the president said during the meeting. 

By Cheon Ho-sung, staff reporter; Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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