South Korea takes steps to suspend licenses of striking doctors after they refuse to end walkouts

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s government began steps Monday to suspend the medical licenses of thousands of striking junior doctors, days after they missed a government-set deadline to end their joint walkouts, which have severely impacted hospital operations.

Nearly 9,000 medical interns and residents have been on strike for two weeks to protest a government push to sharply increase the number of medical school admissions. Their action has led to hundreds of canceled surgeries and other treatments and threatened to burden the country’s medical service.

On Monday, officials were sent to dozens of hospitals to formally confirm the absence of the striking doctors as the government began steps to suspend their licenses for at least three months, Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told a briefing.

Park said authorities will later notify the striking doctors of their expected license suspensions and give them a chance to respond. He suggested the license suspensions would take weeks to go into effect.

“Despite repeated appeals by the government and other parts of society, the number of trainee doctors returning to work is very insignificant. Starting from today, we begin the execution of law with the on-site inspection,” Park said.

Park again repeated the government’s call for the doctors to end their walkouts.

“We again strongly urge them to return to patients by not ignoring the pains of patients hovering between life and death — and their families,” he said.

South Korea’s government earlier ordered the striking doctors to return to work by Feb. 29. South Korea’s medical law allows the government to make such back-to-work orders to doctors when it sees grave risks to public health. Anyone who refuses to follow such orders can be punished with a suspension of his or her license for up to one year, and three years in prison or a 30 million won (roughly $22,500) fine.

Last month, the South Korean government announced it would raise the country’s medical school enrollment cap by 2,000 starting next year, from the current 3,058. Officials said it’s urgent to have more doctors to deal with a fast-aging population and resolve a shortage of physicians in rural areas and essential yet low-paying specialties like pediatrics and emergency departments.

Officials say South Korea’s doctor-to-population ratio is one of the lowest among developed countries.

But many doctors have opposed the plan, arguing universities can’t offer quality education to such an abrupt increase in students. They also say adding so many new doctors would also increase public medical expenses since greater competition would lead to excess treatments. They also predict newly added students would also want to work in high-paying, popular professions like plastic surgery and dermatology.

Critics say many doctors oppose the government plan simply because they worry adding more doctors would result in a lower income.

The striking junior doctors are a small fraction of the country’s 140,000 doctors. But they account for 30-40% of the total doctors at some major hospitals, where they assist senior doctors while training.

Senior doctors have staged a slew of street rallies supporting the young doctors but haven’t joined their walkouts. Police said they were investigating five ranking members of the Korea Medical Association, a body that represents South Korean doctors, for allegedly inciting and abetting the walkouts.

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