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Seoul gives young doctors 4 days to end walkouts, threatening suspended licenses and prosecutions

Thousands of junior doctors in South Korea have been refusing to see patients and attend surgeries for a week in anger over the government鈥檚 push to recruit more medical students. Their joint strikes are now at a critical juncture, with authorities warning that they have until Thursday to return to work or face the suspensions of their licenses and prosecutions. (Feb. 27)

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SEOUL, South Korea (AP) 鈥 Junior doctors in South Korea have four days to end their walkouts or they will have their medical licenses suspended and face prosecution, the government said Monday.

About 9,000 medical interns and residents have stayed off the job since early last week to protest a government plan to increase medical school admissions by about 65%. The walkouts have severely hurt the operations of their hospitals, with numerous cancellations of surgeries and other treatments.

Government officials say adding more doctors is necessary to deal with South Korea鈥檚 rapidly aging population. The country鈥檚 current doctor-to-patient ratio is among the lowest in the developed world.

The strikers say universities can鈥檛 handle so many new students and argue the plan would not resolve a chronic shortage of doctors in some key but low-paying areas like pediatrics and emergency departments.

Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said during a televised briefing Monday that the government won鈥檛 seek any disciplinary action against striking doctors if they return to work by Thursday.

鈥淲e want them to return to work by the end of this month, Feb. 29. If they return to the hospitals they had left by then, we won鈥檛 hold them responsible鈥 for any damage caused by their walkouts, Park said. 鈥淚t鈥檚 not too late. Please, return to patients immediately.鈥

But he said those who don鈥檛 meet the deadline will be punished with a minimum three-month suspension of their medical licenses and face further legal steps such as investigations and possible indictments.

Doctors stage a rally against the government's medical policy near the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. The South Korean government on Wednesday warned thousands of striking doctors to return to work immediately or face legal action after their collective walkouts caused cancellations of surgeries and disrupted other hospital operations. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Doctors stage a rally against the government鈥檚 medical policy near the presidential office in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Under South Korea鈥檚 medical law, the government can issue back-to-work orders to doctors and other medical personnel when it sees grave risks to public health. Refusing to abide by such an order can bring suspensions of their licenses and up to three years in prison or a 30 million won ($22,480) fine. Those who receive prison sentences would be stripped of their medical licenses.

Hyeondeok Choi, a partner at the law firm Daeryun which specializes in medical law, said it鈥檚 highly unlikely the government will suspend the licenses of all doctors on strike, as that would cause 鈥渁n enormous medical vacuum.鈥 Other observers said authorities would likely punish strike leaders.

There are about 13,000 medical interns and residents in South Korea, most of them working and training at 100 hospitals. They typically assist senior doctors during surgeries and deal with inpatients. They represent about 30% to 40% of total doctors at some major hospitals.

The Korea Medical Association, which represents about 140,000 doctors, has said it supports the striking doctors but hasn鈥檛 determined whether to join the trainee doctors鈥 walkouts. Senior doctors have held a series of rallies voicing opposition to the government鈥檚 plan in recent days.

Doctors march toward the presidential office during a rally against the government's medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. The South Korean government on Wednesday warned thousands of striking doctors to return to work immediately or face legal action after their collective walkouts caused cancellations of surgeries and disrupted other hospital operations. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Doctors march toward the presidential office during a rally against the government鈥檚 medical policy in Seoul, South Korea, Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)

Earlier this month, the government announced universities would admit 2,000 more medical students starting next year, from the current 3,058. The government says it aims to add up to 10,000 doctors by 2035.

Striking doctors have said they worry doctors faced with increased competition would engage in overtreatment, burdening public medical expenses.

A public survey showed that about 80% of South Koreans back the plan. Critics suspect doctors, one of the best-paid professions in South Korea, oppose the recruitment plan because they worry they would face greater competition and lower incomes.

Park said the country鈥檚 medical services for emergency and critical patients remain stable, with public medical facilities extending their working hours and military hospitals opening emergency rooms to ordinary patients. But local media reported that an octogenarian suffering a cardiac arrest was declared dead last Friday after seven hospitals turned her away citing a lack of medical staff or other reasons likely related to the walkouts.

Hwang Byung-tae, a 55-year-old laryngeal cancer patient, said he has regularly visited a Seoul hospital for treatment for four years. Last week, he said he had to leave the hospital without receiving an anti-cancer injection because of the walkouts.

Hwang accused both the government and doctors of holding the lives of patients hostage. 鈥淚t鈥檚 patients like me who end up suffering and dying, not them,鈥 Hwang said.

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Associated Press writer Jiwon Song contributed to this report.