What’s next for South Korean doctors who face license suspensions because of walkouts

A doctors wearing a mask attends a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March. 3, 2024. Thousands of senior doctors rallied in Seoul on Sunday to express their support for junior doctors who have been on strike for nearly two weeks over a government plan to sharply increase the number of medical school admissions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

A doctors wearing a mask attends a rally against the government’s medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, March. 3, 2024. Thousands of senior doctors rallied in Seoul on Sunday to express their support for junior doctors who have been on strike for nearly two weeks over a government plan to sharply increase the number of medical school admissions. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s government is pressing ahead with its vow to suspend the licenses of thousands of junior doctors who ignore its repeated demands to end their collective walkouts.

Nearly 9,000 out of the country’s 13,000 medical interns and residents have been refusing to work for about two weeks to protest a government plan to increase South Korea’s medical school admission quota by about two thirds.

Here are some questions and answers about what’s next in the strike:

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HOW DOES THE SUSPENSION WORK?

After their walkouts caused hundreds of surgeries and other treatments to be canceled, the government ordered the junior doctors to return to work by Feb. 29 or face license suspensions and possible legal charges. Most of them missed the deadline.

On Monday, the government dispatched officials to about 50 hospitals to formally confirm the absence of striking doctors, before informing them of their license suspensions and giving them a chance to respond.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said the doctors face a minimum three-month suspension. Suspension records will leave them facing more than one year of delay in getting licenses for specialists and further barriers in landing jobs, Park said.

Park suggested it would take weeks to complete procedures for suspending licenses. Once it’s done, some striking doctors will likely respond with legal action.

Hyeondeok Choi, partner at the law firm Daeryun that specializes in medical law, said it would be “impossible” for the government to suspend the licenses of all the 9,000 doctors. He said the government would likely target less than 100 of the leading strikers.

The Korea Medical Association, which represents 140,000 doctors in South Korea, said it supports the junior doctors’ walkouts. Joo Sooho, a spokesperson at the KMA’s emergency committee, said Monday that senior doctors are considering economic support for the strikers if their licenses are suspended.

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WHAT OTHER STEPS THE STRIKERS CAN FACE?

South Korea’s medical law says doctors who refuse the government’s back-to-work order can face up to three years in prison or a 30 million won ($22,480) fine, as well as up to one year of license suspensions. Those sent to prison or given even suspended prison sentences automatically lose their licenses.

The Health Ministry can file complaints with police, who then investigate and hand the case to prosecutors for a possible indictment, according to Choi, the law firm partner.

Joo said the Korea Medical Association will provide lawyers to the striking doctors if they are summoned by police or prosecutors.

South Korean police said they are investigating five senior members of the Korea Medical Association, after the Health Ministry filed complaints against them for allegedly inciting and abetting the junior doctors’ walkouts.

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WHAT DO PEOPLE SAY?

The doctors’ strikes have so far failed to generate public support, with a survey showing about 80% backing the government’s school enrollment plan.

The government says South Korea urgently needs more doctors to deal with a rapidly aging population. Many doctors say a too-steep increase in the number of students would eventually result in undermining medical service. Some critics say doctors, one of the highest-paid professions in South Korea, worry about losing their income.

Lee Yeonha, 40, said the striking doctors were “too selfish” and a three-month license suspension is too little.

“I wish the government would take more powerful legal action to get the doctors to fear that they may not be able to work as doctors in this country,” Lee said.

Another Seoul resident, Sunny Shin, supports the arguments by doctors that the government must first resolve fundamental problems such as a lack of medical liability protection and a shortage of physicians in key yet low-paying specialties such as pediatrics and emergency departments.

“As long as the crucial sector doctors are likely to be embroiled in lawsuits and still not highly paid, I cannot blame them for protesting against the government labeling them as privileged people neglecting their duties as doctors,” Shin said.

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