South Korea will suspend licenses of 2 senior doctors in first punishment for doctors’ walkouts

FILE - Doctors stage a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, on March 3, 2024. South Korean authorities have suspended the licenses of two senior doctors for allegedly inciting the weekslong walkouts by medical interns and residents that disrupted hospital operations across the country. That's according to one of the doctors who spoke to The Associated Press. The suspensions are the government’s first punitive step against physicians after thousands of doctors-in-training walked off the job last month to protest the government’s plan to sharply increase medical school admissions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

FILE – Doctors stage a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, on March 3, 2024. South Korean authorities have suspended the licenses of two senior doctors for allegedly inciting the weekslong walkouts by medical interns and residents that disrupted hospital operations across the country. That’s according to one of the doctors who spoke to The Associated Press. The suspensions are the government’s first punitive step against physicians after thousands of doctors-in-training walked off the job last month to protest the government’s plan to sharply increase medical school admissions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon, File)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korean authorities will suspend the licenses of two senior doctors for allegedly inciting the weekslong walkouts by thousands of medical interns and residents that have disrupted hospital operations, one of the doctors said Monday.

The impending suspensions are the punishments against physicians after more than 90% of the country’s 13,000 doctors-in-training walked off the job last month to protest the government’s plan to sharply increase medical school admissions.

Officials say the recruitment plan is aimed at adding more doctors to prepare for South Korea’s rapidly aging population in a country whose doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest in the developed world. But doctors say schools can’t handle an abrupt, steep increase in students, and that it would ultimately undermine the country’s medical services.

In early March, the government began taking steps to suspend the licenses of striking junior doctors after they refused its orders to return to work by the end of February. Police are separately investigating five senior members of the Korean Medical Association, which represents doctors in South Korea, for allegedly inciting and abetting the strikes.

Park Myung-Ha, one of the five members, said he received a government-sent letter saying that his license will be suspended for three months from April 15. Park, who works for the KMA’s emergency committee, said committee leader Kim Taek-woo was also given a three-month suspension.

The Health Ministry said it wouldn’t confirm any reported administrative steps imposed on individual doctors.

“My fellow doctors and I are really angered and appalled by the government’s measure,” Park told The Associated Press.

Park accused the government of attempting to break up the KMA emergency committee and sending a warning message to striking junior doctors. He said he and others are discussing legal steps to respond to the license suspensions.

About 12,000 junior doctors have been off the job for a month, but none has received a license suspension. Observers have said it would take a few months to suspend all their licenses and that the government would likely end up suspending only strike leaders.

The striking junior doctors account for less than 10% of South Korea’s 140,000 doctors. But in some major hospitals, they represent about 30%-40% of the doctors, assisting senior doctors during surgeries and dealing with inpatients while training.

Their strikes have caused hundreds of canceled or postponed surgeries and other treatments, but officials say the country’s handling of emergency and critical patients largely remains stable.

Senior doctors at major university hospitals recently decided to submit resignations next week in support of the junior doctors. Still, most of them will likely continue to report to work. If they walk off the job, that would burden South Korea’s medical services severely.

In a briefing earlier Monday, Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo urged senior doctors to cancel their plans and persuade the striking junior doctors to return to work.

“Under any circumstances, you must not use the lives of the people for negotiations,” Park said.

In early February, the government said it would increase the country’s medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 starting next year, from the current cap of 3,058 that has been unchanged since 2006.

Officials say more doctors are required to address a long-standing shortage of physicians in rural areas and in essential yet low-paying specialties.

But doctors say newly recruited students would also try to work in the capital region and in high-paying fields like plastic surgery and dermatology. They say the government plan would also result in doctors performing unnecessary treatments due to increased competition.

Surveys show a majority of the South Korean public support the government’s recruitment plan. Critics say doctors — one of the best-paid professions in South Korea — are only worrying about the possibility of a lower income in the future.

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