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South Korea gives protesting doctors 29 Feb return deadline

South Korea gov’t orders protesting doctors to return to work by end-Feb or face penalties. Concerns raised amid healthcare disruptions.



SEOUL – The South Korean government on Monday (26 Feb) has issued a stern ultimatum to protesting doctors, mandating their return to work by the end of February or face punitive measures for their week-long protest, which has severely disrupted healthcare services at several major hospitals.

The protest, led by two-thirds of the nation’s residents and intern doctors, erupted in response to a government proposal aimed at increasing medical school admissions to alleviate a projected shortage of doctors in one of the world’s fastest-ageing societies.

The ongoing demonstration has resulted in hospitals turning away patients and cancelling critical procedures.

Safety Minister Lee Sang-min emphasized the urgency of the situation during a task-force meeting, highlighting the escalating chaos in hospitals and the perilous state of emergency services.

“If you return to the hospital you left behind by 29 February, you won’t be held responsible for what has already happened,” Minister Lee stated, urging doctors to prioritize patient care and emphasizing the effectiveness of their advocacy while actively engaged in medical practice.

Failure to comply with the back-to-work order could result in severe repercussions, including legal action such as prosecution, potential arrest, and revocation of medical licenses, according to previous government warnings.

However, the protesting doctors contend that the government should address existing concerns regarding pay and working conditions before implementing measures to expand the physician workforce.

South Korean nurses have also been granted legal safeguards enabling them to undertake certain medical procedures typically handled by doctors.

Officials did this to help ease the pressure on hospital workers.

They expressed concerns about the increased legal liability and extra workload they’re dealing with since intern doctors stopped working.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo announced that those failing to return to work by 1 March would face a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licenses, alongside other legal consequences, The Korea Herald reported.

While senior doctors and private practitioners have refrained from participating in the walkout, they have voiced support for revisiting the government’s plan to increase medical school quotas, advocating for its abandonment.

Despite opposition, a significant portion of the South Korean population, as indicated by recent polls, supports the government’s initiative, which has been championed by President Yoon Suk Yeol.

In a bid to bolster medical services, the government has unveiled a comprehensive package of policy measures, including plans to expand legal protections against malpractice suits and prosecution, incentivize doctors to specialize in critical disciplines and practice in underserved regions.

Some doctors, however, speculate that the government’s proposal is motivated by political considerations ahead of the upcoming general election in April.

Medical professors at Seoul National University have urged authorities to defer discussions on the plan until after the elections, alleging potential electoral motives behind the initiative.

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