(3rd LD) Health ministry steps up warning against trainee doctors as Thursday deadline looms

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said Tuesday that trainee doctors would face legal punishment, including suspension of their licenses, unless they go back to work by the Thursday deadline, stepping up warnings against thousands of junior doctors who left hospitals to protest against a plan to boost medical students. About 9,000 trainee doctors have left worksites for an eighth day in protest of the government's plan to raise the medical school admission quota by 2,000 seats next year. "We will continue to respond under the law and the principle for illegal collective action," Cho told reporters. "We urge trainee doctors who have left their workplaces to return by Thursday. If they do, they will not be held accountable for previous actions." "Starting March, suspending licenses and initiating legal proceedings will be unavoidable for those who do not return," Cho said. Authorities will conduct an on-site inspection at 50 hospitals by the end of this week to probe into work stoppages by trainee doctors, Cho said. Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo also sent a verbal warning, saying the government could ban trainee doctors from resigning by law. "While trainee doctors argue their resignations are based on the constitutional right to choose jobs, certain regulations can be implemented to safeguard the common interest and maintain social order," Park said. "We have concluded the legal review, confirming that the order comes in line with the current medical system," he added. Under the Medical Service Act, the government possesses the authority to potentially revoke doctors' licenses should they receive criminal punishments after failing to adhere to the order to return to work. To make up for a "vacuum" in medical services, nurses were allowed to perform more medical roles from Tuesday under legal protection, according to the health ministry. Park told reporters that 8,939 trainee doctors, or 72.7 percent of the total, have walked off the job as of Monday night. The number of trainee doctors who submitt ed their resignations came to 9,909, Park said. Since trainee doctors began the mass walkout, the number of new patients has fallen 24 percent at general hospitals, while the number of surgeries performed has plunged 50 percent there. Joining the protest against the quota hike plan, more than 13,000 medical students, or nearly 70 percent of the total, have also filed for leave of absence from school across the nation since Feb. 19. Other medical students also boycotted classes at six medical schools across the nation in their collective action on Monday, the education ministry said. Concerns about a health care service crisis are deepening with cases of patient damage piling up, with an elderly woman dying of cardiac arrest without treatment. South Korea has been pushing to increase the number of medical freshmen to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine. Doctors, however, argue t hat the government should rather focus on protecting them from malpractice suits and improving compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such unpopular areas. The government, meanwhile, plans to investigate a case from the central city of Daejeon, where an 80-something patient died upon arriving at a hospital after searching for an available emergency room for nearly an hour, amid the vacancy of trainee doctors. Source: Yonhap News Agency