(3rd LD) Trainee doctors’ work stoppage grows despite gov’t warning of legal action

A work stoppage by trainee doctors grew Thursday in spite of the government's warning of taking legal action against their collective action in protest of a plan to boost the number of medical students. Major general hospitals in Seoul and elsewhere struggled to cope with patients as a confrontation between doctors and the government over the plan to raise the medical school admission quota by 2,000 seats intensified. Authorities have pledged to seek arrest warrants in principle for those who spearhead the collective resignations by interns and resident doctors nationwide. As of Wednesday night, 9,275 trainee doctors, or 74.4 percent of all junior doctors, have submitted their resignations, and 8,024 of them have left their worksites, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters. Park said the government has ordered more than 6,000 trainee doctors to return to work. So far, the ministry has received about 150 complaints in connection with the trainee doctors' collective resignations. "The powe r of doctors does not come from collective action," Park told a daily press briefing, calling for trainee doctors "to remember that patients are waiting for you at this moment." Park also urged trainee doctors to participate in talks with the government. The collective resignations of junior doctors are fueling concerns of a "health care service vacuum," with the operation of surgery rooms slashed to as low as 50 percent capacity at the five biggest general hospitals in Seoul, medical sources said. Surgeries were cut in half at Severance Hospital in central Seoul, with St. Mary's Hospital and Asan Medical Center in southern and eastern Seoul, respectively, reducing their surgery capacities by 30 percent. Despite the government's back-to-work order, trainee doctors have shown no signs of backing down. In a statement, the Korean Intern Resident Association, a major organization of trainee doctors, demanded the government withdraw the plan to increase the number of medical students. The Korea Medical Assoc iation (KMA), a mainstream lobby group for practicing doctors, also announced that it will conduct a vote among all members on March 3 on whether to take collective action of their own. "It is not doctors but the government that held patients' health and lives hostage, and that is responsible for this incident," Joo Soo-ho, a KMA spokesperson, said in a press briefing. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo plans to preside over a government meeting of health, education, justice and interior ministry officials Friday to discuss further toughening the government response to trainee doctors' collective action. Patients vented their frustration and anxiety over disruptions to medical services. "I was supposed to go into hospital Tuesday to get surgery on Wednesday, but it got canceled," a patient, whose rectal cancer metastasized to liver recently, said in an online post. "I'm so scared I might have to get a liver transplant because of the delay in surgery." Another patient, who suffers stomach cancer, voiced frustrat ion for having no choice but to feel helplessness in the situation. "My blood dries up day by day amid the confrontation (between the government and medical community)," the patient said. Source: Yonhap News Agency