(4th LD) Walkout by trainee doctors expected to intensify as medical graduates refuse to join internships

A large-scale walkout by trainee doctors is expected to intensify as new medical school graduates reportedly refused to take internships, joining an ongoing protest against the government's plan to boost the number of medical students. The Korean Medical Association (KMA), the biggest lobbying group of doctors, said it will protest "to the end" if the government unilaterally presses ahead with the plan to raise the medical school quota. The move by medical school graduates is likely to pile pressure on the government as thousands of intern and resident doctors in major general hospitals have walked off the job for the sixth consecutive day in opposition to the government's plan to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools next year. At Chonnam National University Hospital in Gwangju, 267 kilometers south of Seoul, 86 out of 101 graduates who were scheduled to commence their internships next month have resigned. About 20 intern candidates at Jeju National University Hospital on the southern resort isla nd of Jeju refused to join internships. At Pusan National University Hospital in the southern port city of Busan, all 50 candidates, initially slated to begin their internships Friday, submitted letters of resignation. At Soonchunhyang University Cheonan Hospital in Cheonan, located 85 kilometers south of Seoul, 32 graduates declined internships. Throughout the weekend, major hospitals experienced delays in their operating schedules, prompting even patients in critical condition to seek care at smaller medical facilities. Some hospitals adjusted their intensive care unit schedules from three shifts to two due to the shortage of on-duty doctors. So far, 8,897, or 78.5 percent, of the 13,000 trainee doctors from 96 major teaching hospitals in Seoul and elsewhere have submitted their resignations, with 7,863 of them not reporting for work, according to the health ministry. More junior doctors are expected to join the protest, raising concerns as they play a vital role in assisting with surgeries and emergen cy services. The walkout came despite the government's stern warning that those leading the collective action could face arrest and those involved in a strike could have their medical licenses canceled. On Friday, the government raised its four-scale health care service crisis gauge to the highest level of "serious" in response to the departure of doctors. The government claims the increase is necessary 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 that the government should rather focus on protecting them from malpractice suits and improving compensation to induce more physicians to practice in such unpopular areas. Meanwhile, the KMA convened a meeting Sunday to discuss their course of action. After the meeting, the group called for the government to immediately discard the plan to boost the number of medical students. "If the government unilaterally presses ahead with the plan, the medical circle will protest to the end, mobilizing all legitimate means and methods," the group said. Around 200 doctors held a rally and marched toward the presidential office in central Yongsan, according to police. The KMA plans to stage a mass protest involving doctors across the nation in the financial district of Yeouido on March 3. But it did not disclose a detailed schedule for their collective action. In another sign of ratcheting up confrontation between doctors and the government, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said the government decided to assign a prosecutor to the health ministry to offer advice as authorities prepare for legal actions against protesting doctors. Cho said the government "will do its best to prevent damage to the people caused by collective action." Due to a shortage of doctors on duty, general hospitals are prioritizing their focus on patients in critical condition, while advising those with relatively mild symptoms to seek treatment at smaller clin ics. At a general hospital in the central city of Daejeon, 40-year-old Lee Seon-jeong said her father was denied hospitalization despite suffering from an underlying disease, and had to search for other clinics that remained open during the weekend. "My father is suffering from shingles, and he had abdominal pain overnight, so he came here early in the morning, but the hospital said it was difficult for a doctor to see him because he was not seriously ill," Lee said. Another 31-year-old patient, surnamed Kim, also shared the experience of being denied hospitalization upon returning to the hospital after being transported to the intensive care unit in an ambulance the previous day. Source: Yonhap News Agency