South Korea gives protesting doctors end-Feb deadline to return to work

The protest has forced hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures

February 27, 2024
South Korean Female Doctors can be seen in a hospital. — AFP/File

SEOUL: South Korea’s government on Monday told young doctors they had until the end of February to return to work or risk being punished for staging a week-long protest that has disrupted services for patients at several major hospitals.


Two-thirds of the nation’s residents and intern doctors had walked off the job to protest a government plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical school in a bid to address what authorities say is a shortage of doctors that is set to worsen in one of the world’s fastest ageing societies.

The protest has forced hospitals to turn away patients and cancel procedures.“Considering the gravity of the situation, the government issues the last plea,” safety minister Lee Sang-min said at the opening of a task-force meeting, adding that chaos was mounting in hospitals and emergency services had reached a “dangerous situation”.“If you return to the hospital you left behind by Feb 29, you won’t be held responsible for what has already happened,” he said. “We urge you to remember your voice will be heard loudly and most effectively when you are by the side of patients.”

The government has previously warned that it could take legal action against doctors who do not comply with a back-to-work order, including prosecution, possible arrest and stripping them of their medical licences.

The young doctors who are protesting say the government should first address pay and working conditions before trying to increase the number of physicians.Vice health minister Park Min-soo said those who did not return by March 1 will face a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licence among other legal action.

Senior doctors and private practitioners have not joined the walkout but have held rallies urging the government to scrap its plan to boost medical school quotas.Many South Koreans support the plan, which has been spearheaded by President Yoon Suk Yeol.

A recent Gallup Korea poll showed about 76 percent of respondents approved of the plan, regardless of their political affiliation and a separate opinion poll by Realmeter released on Monday showed that Yoon’s approval rating had risen to 41.9 percent, the first time in eight months it has topped the 40 percent level.

In a package of policy plans to improve medical services, the government said it will increase the number of new medical students by 2,000 a year and expand legal protection against malpractice suits and prosecution.