(4th LD) Gov’t intensifies pressure on striking trainee doctors with police raid

SEOUL, The government intensified pressure on striking trainee doctors by conducting a police raid on offices of a major doctors' association and repeating the back-to-work order Friday as many of them remained off the job after the government-set deadline for their return passed. The raids on offices of the Korea Medical Association (KMA) could send a message to thousands of striking interns and resident doctors that the government is serious about taking punitive measures against them, such as the suspension of their medical licenses. The raids marked the first investigative action by police with regard to the walkout. Nearly 10,000 trainee doctors nationwide walked off the job in the form of mass resignations last week in protest of the government's decision to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools starting next year to address a shortage of doctors. The current quota is 3,058. The government had given the striking interns and resident doctors until the end of Thursday to return to work or face punitive action, such as the suspension of their medical licenses. An additional 271 protesting doctors returned to work Thursday, bringing the total to 565, the health ministry told reporters Friday. But there seems to be no sign of them ending the walkout altogether as more than 8,000 others remained off work, according to officials. The KMA voiced strong opposition against the government's moves and vowed to continue collective action, warning that it "could cause inconvenience to the people." "We strongly condemn the government's moves of oppressing freedom and human rights of doctors," the association said in a statement. "We will resist for achieving freedom and making our voice heard." The KMA's emergency measures committee also hinted at the possibility of another collective action, in addition to the KMA's planned massive rally in Seoul's Yeouido district Sunday afternoon. "Paid doctors can also join (the walkout) when clinics are closed," Joo Su-ho, a KMA official, told reporters, adding that a decision to close local clinics for a day or two can be decided by the committee. The ministry on Friday put up the state back-to-work order on its website for 13 trainee doctors affiliated with 12 general hospitals. The move is seen as a final step for potential punitive measures, as the government had delivered such an order via emails and text messages and in person, though many have refused to receive it by changing their phone numbers and addresses. "The government is supposed to deliver the order via email or in person, but posting a notice is also allowed in case those methods are not possible," a ministry official said. "We will continue due administrative measures in accordance with law and principles." Police also raided offices of the KMA, the country's largest doctors' group, in Seoul and elsewhere after complaints were filed against former and incumbent leaders of the association on charges of instigating the walkout by trainee doctors. Some have raised the possibility of more doctors retu rning to work over the weekend, as chiefs of major general hospitals made an appeal for their return to patients. "We stick to the principle regarding the deadline, but we will think of what to do with doctors who return to work during the holiday and this weekend," a ministry official said. Friday is a holiday marking the anniversary of the March 1 independence movement against Japanese colonial rule in 1919. Operations at major hospitals nationwide have been disrupted, as trainee doctors are a crucial part of large hospitals, particularly in emergency and acute health care duties. Patients have been turned away from emergency rooms and their surgeries and procedures have been postponed. The health ministry filed complaints with police against several doctors for the alleged violation of medical law and other charges. The government is pushing to increase the admission quota to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatri cs, obstetrics and emergency medicine. Given the rapid population aging and other issues, the country is also expected to run short of 15,000 doctors by 2035. But doctors argue that the quota hikes would compromise the quality of medical education and services and a surplus of physicians, and the government must devise ways of better protecting them from malpractice suits and extending compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such "unpopular" areas. Source: Yonhap News Agency