South Korea Deploys Military, Public Doctors to Strike-hit Hospitals

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korea will start deploying military physicians and doctors from public health centers to strike-hit hospitals on Monday to help care for patients affected by the walkout of nearly 12,000 trainee doctors from 100 hospitals over government reform plans.

Twenty military surgeons along with 138 public health doctors will be assigned to 20 hospitals for four weeks, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said at a meeting on Sunday.

The number of military physicians called on to help so far was only a small fraction of the roughly 2,400 military doctors, according to a defense ministry briefing.

The government has denied the walkout which started on Feb. 20 has caused a full-blown health crisis, but some hospitals have had to turn away patients and delay medical procedures.

As of Friday morning, nearly 12,000 protesting doctors at 100 hospitals had left their posts in a dispute over a government plan to increase medical school admissions, health ministry data showed, defying pressure from authorities to return to work.

South Korean authorities have been trying to coax the doctors to return to work by warning them that their medical licenses could be suspended but so far appear to have had little success with the tactic.

The health ministry said notices had been sent to more than 4,900 doctors as of Friday to instruct them that authorities could start suspending licenses if they did not explain their action.

Doctors who returned to work before the administrative measure to suspend licenses was complete would be “given leniency,” Cho told KBS Radio on Monday.

The government has the power to order doctors back to work if it deems there is a serious risk to lives and public health.

The government has said the plan to increase annual medical school admissions by 2,000 starting from 2025 is vital to remedy a shortage of doctors in one of the world’s fastest-ageing societies.

The striking doctors argue that simply adding medical students will not address pay and work conditions, and could possibly exacerbate the problems.

Critics of the policy also accuse President Yoon Suk Yeol of picking a fight over medical reforms to benefit his party ahead of parliamentary elections in April.

A survey published last week by the Yonhap news agency found 84% of respondents supported adding more doctors, while 43% said striking physicians should be sternly punished.

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