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Health minister calls on doctors to cancel strike

Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo speaks Thursday morning at the government complex building in Sejong. (Health Ministry)
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo speaks Thursday morning at the government complex building in Sejong. (Health Ministry)

Korea’s top health official once again called on the doctors to cancel their strike action set for Friday.

The doctors said they would stage a one-day walkout to protest the government’s package of health reforms that were announced last month. Last Friday, junior doctors and medical students walked off their practices and marched in the streets of Yeouido, central Seoul, demanding negotiations with the government.

In an address Thursday morning, Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo said he was “deeply sorry” that the doctors have decided to proceed with the strike as scheduled.

“The doctors’ strike will not only inconvenience countless Koreans but also seriously imperil their health. I urge you to recall the obligations of medical ethics and put lives and safety of the people first,” he said, warning of legal consequences.

The doctors said, however, that critical and urgent care will not be disrupted, and that essential staff will not partake in the walkout.

While the minister urged the doctors to return to table to “resolve the dispute without the strike,” prospects of finding a middle ground appear bleak.

The row between the government and the medical community deepened even further after a senior health official said during a Tuesday meeting with doctors’ representatives that the doctors were “public commodities,” and that despite the protests, the plans are “due to be approved.”

The meeting incited a further backlash from doctors who say the comments are offensive.

“Health ministry officials made it clear the government would press ahead with the plans anyhow. Why put up a pretense of a dialogue?” said a member doctor of the Korean Intern-Resident Association.

Korean Medical Association, as well as 26 other medical societies, said in a joint statement Wednesday that they oppose the health reform plans put forth by the government, which include increasing admissions at medical schools and extending state health insurance coverage to Korean traditional herbal remedies.

The Health Ministry said it would lift a cap on medical training places in the country for the first time since 2006, to admit 4,000 more students over 10 years starting 2022. About three-quarters of the newly recruited medical students will be deployed in rural regions where access to health care is scarce.

Covering the herbal remedies is an “inevitable step,” explained the ministry, in line with the aim of “standardizing and globalizing” the traditional Korean medicine system.

The doctors say adding more medical students will only profit universities and allow hospitals to exploit medical workforce without improving working conditions or wages.

On paying for traditional herbal remedies with national insurance, the doctors said life-saving and indispensable therapies such as anticancer drugs should have been prioritized in getting the coverage.

By Kim Arin (