South Korea protests: Senior doctors to resign in support of strikes
South Korea protests: Senior doctors to resign in support of strikes

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Senior doctors at major South Korean hospitals began resigning en masse Monday in support of interns and residents who have been on strike for five weeks in government pressure to sharply increase medical school admissions.

The senior doctors’ action is unlikely to cause an immediate deterioration in hospital operations in South Korea, as they have said they will continue to work even after they resign. But prospects for an early end to the medical impasse were also dim as doctors’ planned action comes after President Yoon Suk Yeol called for talks with doctors, suggesting possible mitigation of punitive steps against the striking junior doctors.

About 12,000 interns and medical residents were facing an impending suspension of their licenses for their refusal to end their strikes that have led to hundreds of canceled operations and other treatments at their hospitals.

They oppose the government’s plan to raise the country’s medical school admissions cap by two-thirds, saying the schools cannot handle such a sharp increase in students and that it will ultimately hurt South Korea’s medical services. . But officials say more doctors are urgently needed because South Korea has a rapidly aging population and one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios in the developed world.

In a meeting with ruling party leader Han Dong-hoon on Sunday, representatives of medical professors and doctors at about 40 university hospitals — where the junior doctors worked while training — expressed support for the striking doctors, saying the government’s plan to recruit staff “will collapse our country’s medical system,” said Kim Chang-soo, head of the emergency committee at those universities, on Monday.

Kim called Yoon’s initiative a positive step, but said the current standoff between doctors and the government will not be resolved unless the government reverses its recruitment plan.

He said university doctors were expected to stick to previous plans to tender voluntary resignations and reduce their working hours to 52 hours a week – the maximum weekly number of statutory working hours. Observers say senior doctors have struggled with excessive workloads after their juniors have left their hospitals.

“If the government intends to withdraw its plan or intends to consider it, we are ready to discuss all pending issues with the government in public,” Kim said.

Later on Monday, an unspecified number of senior doctors went ahead and resigned, according to doctors involved in the protests. They said some doctors had already resigned last week.

After Sunday’s meeting, Han asked Yun’s office to “flexibly handle” the issue planned license suspensions for the striking doctors. Yun then asked his prime minister to take a “flexible measure” to resolve the dispute and seek constructive consultations with doctors, according to Yun’s office.

It is not clear if and how soon the government and doctors will sit down for talks and achieve a breakthrough. Some observers say the government’s likely softening of penalties for striking doctors and its push for dialogue with doctors are likely linked to next month’s parliamentary elections, as further hospital shutdowns would be unhelpful to ruling party candidates .

The striking junior doctors represent less than 10% of South Korea’s 140,000 doctors. But in some large hospitals, they make up about 30% to 40% of doctors, assisting senior doctors during operations and dealing with inpatients during training.

Public opinion polls show a majority of South Koreans support the government’s push to create more doctors, and critics say doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, are worried about lower incomes due to the increase in the number of doctors.

Officials say more doctors are needed to address a long-standing shortage of doctors in rural areas and in basic but low-paying specialties. But doctors say the newly hired students will also try to work in the metropolitan area and in high-paying fields such as plastic surgery and dermatology. They say the government’s plan is also likely to lead to doctors carrying out unnecessary treatments due to increased competition.

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