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(3rd LD) More doctors join strike amid virus resurgence, gov't steps back from hard-line stance

All News 21:33 August 24, 2020

(ATTN: ADDS info on participation rate of fellow doctors in para 4; UPDATES with more info in paras 7, 9)

SEOUL, Aug. 24 (Yonhap) -- More doctors joined an ongoing strike Monday in protest of the medical workforce reform scheme, bucking the government's offer for more talks to come back to work amid the resurgence of the new coronavirus outbreaks.

Interns and residents at major general hospitals have been staging an indefinite walkout nationwide since last week, calling for the government to scrap its plan to increase admission quotas at medical schools.

A number of physicians in fellowship training in Seoul's general hospitals also joined the walkout earlier in the day, including 288 fellow doctors at Seoul National University Hospital and more fellow doctors at Seoul Asan Medical Center.

Doctors at Seoul National University Hospital in Seoul hold signs on Aug. 23, 2020, in protest of the government's plan to increase medical school admission quotas. (Yonhap)

The health ministry said 151 of the 200 medical facilities across the country with doctors on staff reported a walkout taking place. It said of the 8,679 fellow doctors in such facilities, 6,021, or 69.4 percent, were on strike.

Amid an escalated friction, the Korean Intern and Resident Association (KIRA) representing trainee doctors met with Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun and Health Minister Park Neunghoo on Sunday.

During the meeting, trainee doctors agreed to participate in medical services to respond to the novel coronavirus outbreak, signaling that KIRA members will return to work on a limited basis, while trying to resolve the pending problem through negotiations with the government.

However, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents 130,000 doctors, is scheduled to launch its second national walkout this week starting on Wednesday and running through Friday. Among the participants of the planned walkout include attendings at general hospitals and clinic doctors.

The government on Monday once again pleaded with young doctors, saying that they are open to any talks amid concerns that the strike can be prolonged amid a flare-up of novel coronavirus cases.

"We welcome the decision for some trainee doctors to resume their COVID-19 medical services and sincerely hope that they will return to their workplaces as soon as possible," Sohn Young-rae, a senior health official, said in a briefing. He said that while non-trainee doctors have joined the walkout, the government is in the process of trying to resolve outstanding issue so as not to disturb the timely provision of medical care.

On Monday, South Korea reported 266 new COVID-19 cases, bringing the total caseload to 17,665. However, the country is still bogged down with a series of cluster infections continuing in the greater Seoul area and other major cities.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun (R) talks with representatives from the Korean Intern and Resident Association at the government office complex in Seoul on Aug. 23, 2020. (Yonhap)

In a bid to avert the nationwide strike, the prime minister and the health minister held another meeting with Choi Dae-zip, the head of the KMA, but it ended without tangible results.

After the 70-minute negotiations earlier in the day, Minister Park said, "There was a positive discussion," on outstanding issues.

The premier, who has consistently advocated dialogue, said that while government is willing to listen to views and make adjustments, it cannot just scrap the reform measures as demanded by doctors.

He then said that many doctors he talked to felt they were left out of the government's decision-making process, and conceded that this is something that could have been handled differently.

Reflecting the impasse, the head of the KMA said that despite the meeting, the walkout plan is still in effect.

"(The two sides) agreed to have immediate discussions on details between the health ministry and the KMA's working level," Choi said, adding that he was able to have honest talks on key issues, although participants were not able to narrow their differences.

As part of the country's medical workforce reform plan, the health ministry is planning to expand admission quotas at medical schools by 4,000 over the next 10 years, starting in 2022, and to open a new public medical school as it seeks to broaden the reach of health care services.

This will increase the number of students admitted annually to medical schools to 3,458 in the 2022-2031 period from the current 3,058, according to the plan.

They are also protesting the government's push for the establishment of public medical schools, a pilot project for supporting oriental medicine doctors and the introduction of telemedicine.


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