(LEAD) Most trainee doctors resist order to return on deadline day as punitive steps loom

Most trainee doctors who walked off their jobs to protest against the government’s policy defied the government’s order to return to work on Thursday, a deadline where they face suspension of licenses and even indictment unless they comply with it.

The health ministry said it has sought to hold talks with protesting trainee doctors later in the day, but it was uncertain whether they would sit down with government officials as doctors’ groups have been unresponsive.

About 9,000 trainee doctors left their worksites for the 10th day in a row Thursday, in protest of the government’s plan to boost the medical school enrollment quota by 2,000 next year, from the current 3,058.

Major general hospitals nationwide were grappling with the absence of trainee doctors by significantly reducing their operations, including surgeries, emergency rooms and intensive care units.

In the final procedure for the government to file a criminal complaint over the labor action, health ministry officials have visited the homes of r
epresentatives of trainee doctors to deliver the government’s back-to-work order.

Previously, trainee doctors had refused to receive the order by turning off their phones when the government sent such an order via text messages.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong made a last-minute appeal to trainee doctors, repeating a pledge that they will not be held accountable if they go back to work by Thursday.

“(The government) won’t hold trainee doctors responsible if they come back within today,” Cho told SBS radio earlier in the day.

Health ministry officials said they would begin suspending licenses of trainee doctors after conducting some administrative procedures.

“The licenses will not be immediately suspended starting next Monday. They will receive a prior notice, along with an opportunity to make statements,” said Kim Chung-hwan, an official in charge of legal matters at the ministry.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said, if trainee doctors fail to provide justifiable explanations, the government wi
ll proceed with the necessary follow-up steps.

So far, 294 protesting trainee doctors have returned to work, Park told reporters.

As of Wednesday, 9,997 trainee doctors, accounting for 80.2 percent of the total, have submitted their resignations and 9,076 of them left their worksites, Park said.

South Korea has been pushing to increase the number of medical freshmen 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.

The Korea Alliance of Patients Organization, representing nine groups of critical patients, denounced the 10-day walkout by trainee doctors.

“Trainee doctors should cease the collective action in the form of resignations, return to patients in critical condition, and address their inc
onveniences, damages and concerns,” the organization said in a statement.

Source: Yonhap News Agency