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Article South Korea: Government Orders Striking Doctors-in-Training to Return to Work

(Sept. 24, 2020) On August 26, 2020, five days after thousands of doctors in South Korea launched a nationwide strike, the Ministry of Health and Welfare (MOHW) ordered striking doctors-in-training in the greater Seoul area to return to work, citing concerns over spiking coronavirus cases. The Medical Service Act stipulates that the minister, or related regional governors, can issue an order for hospitals to open if “a serious hazard occurs or is likely to occur to public health.” (Act No. 8366, Apr. 11, 2007, amended by Act No. 17069, the Medical Service Act, Mar. 4, 2020, art. 59, paras. 2 & 3.) Those who do not follow the government’s order without probable cause could face imprisonment for up to three years or a fine of up to 30 million won (about US$25,000). (Medical Service Act art. 88.) In the past, this kind of order was issued to hospitals to prevent medical strikes, but never to individual doctors. Violators of the order could also have their medical licenses revoked if they are found guilty and sentenced to a term of imprisonment. (Art. 8.)

The MOHW filed complaints with the police against 10 doctors for allegedly rejecting its back-to-work order. However, the MOHW withdrew the action for four of them on September 2, 2020, after they were found to have followed the order. The MOHW dropped complaints against six doctors-in-training on September 4, 2020, when the ruling Democratic Party, the MOHW, and a group of representative doctors led by the Korean Medical Association (KMA) reached an agreement to halt the government’s medical reform plan.

Background

Doctors-in-training and medical students began protesting against the MOHW plan on August 7, 2020, in Seoul. On August 26, 2020, the doctors went on strike, organized by the KMA. The walkout brought some minor disruptions to medical services at a time when the nation was struggling to cope with an ongoing resurgence of COVID-19 cases because major general hospitals had reduced clinic hours and postponed some surgeries. However, doctors vowed that they would not opt out of COVID-19 duties and that essential staff would remain in place.

The MOHW estimates that South Korea needs about 60,000 more doctors than it currently has. The number of doctors per 1,000 people in South Korea is 2.3, while the average for members of the Organization of Economic Cooperation and Development is 3.4. As part of the country’s medical workforce reform plan, the MOHW announced on July 23, 2020, that it was expanding admission quotas at medical schools by 4,000 over the next 10 years, starting in 2022. The number of students admitted annually to medical schools would be increased between 2022 and 2031 from the current 3,058 to 3,458. The MOHW planned that about three-quarters of the 4,000 would be deployed over a 10-year period in rural parts of the country for at least ten years. The MHOW also planned to open a new public medical school and extend national health insurance coverage to traditional herbal medicine and introduce remote medical services.

Doctors in the country have raised strong objections to the government’s reform plan. The KMA, which represents about 130,000 doctors, claims that South Korea has the best health care access among OECD member states, and population projections show the doctor-to-patient ratio will surpass the OECD average by 2028. In addition, South Korea had already tried a rural rotations program in the past that failed to retain young doctors because of poor working conditions and little to no chance of career advancement. The doctors claim that increasing the number of new doctors will lead only to more competition among doctors and will not help ease the disparity in medical infrastructure among regions.

The striking doctors have also criticized the plan to create a public medical school. The MOHW has stated that the envisioned medical school would recruit students on the basis of recommendations by a committee composed of representatives from civic organizations. Because many civic bodies are under the influence of local government heads, this scheme could help children of influential local figures enter medical schools.

The doctors have also protested against the plan to include traditional oriental medicine in the nation’s public health insurance system, as they consider the field to be insufficiently scientific and vital.

In addition, they have criticized how the MOHW unilaterally decided on the plan without providing doctors with the opportunity to discuss it with the MOHW.

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Chicago citation style:

Umeda, Sayuri. South Korea: Government Orders Striking Doctors-in-Training to Return to Work. 2020. Web Page. https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2020-09-24/south-korea-government-orders-striking-doctors-in-training-to-return-to-work/.

APA citation style:

Umeda, S. (2020) South Korea: Government Orders Striking Doctors-in-Training to Return to Work. [Web Page] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2020-09-24/south-korea-government-orders-striking-doctors-in-training-to-return-to-work/.

MLA citation style:

Umeda, Sayuri. South Korea: Government Orders Striking Doctors-in-Training to Return to Work. 2020. Web Page. Retrieved from the Library of Congress, <www.loc.gov/item/global-legal-monitor/2020-09-24/south-korea-government-orders-striking-doctors-in-training-to-return-to-work/>.