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(4th LD) Trainee, fellow doctors set to return to work Tuesday, urge measures to protect medical students

All News 23:22 September 07, 2020

(ATTN: RECASTS headline, lead; UPDATES with more details throughout)

SEOUL, Sept. 7 (Yonhap) -- Thousands of trainee and fellow doctors will return to work this week, ending a weekslong collective action over a controversial medical reform plan, their representatives said Monday.

An emergency committee under the Korean Intern and Resident Association (KIRA) representing interns and residents at general hospitals said its members will return to hospitals as of 7 a.m. Tuesday.

The KIRA members, however, warned they can take escalated collective action if the government does not come up with further measures within two weeks to support medical students who did not apply for a state medical licensing exam set to be held Tuesday.

A separate committee representing physicians and clinicians who have participated in the strike also said its members will report for duty, so as to meet their obligations to patients. The group made clear that it opposes the medical reform plan proposed by the government and will take part in future talks with policymakers to reflect their views.

Seoul National University Hospital is crowded with patients on Sept. 7, 2020. (Yonhap)

The decision by the group of young doctors comes after the country's largest doctors' association, the Korean Medical Association (KMA), signed a deal with the ruling party Friday to end their nationwide strike.

The KMA had joined the collective action with junior doctors but agreed to return to work after the government backed down and promised to put the medical reform plans on hold in a joint effort for the novel coronavirus pandemic.

The government earlier said it will hold the exam as scheduled after most medical students said they will not take the exam in protest over the agreement.

"We will continue further collective action if students are not allowed to retake the exam or the test is postponed," said Park Ji-hyun, a spokeswoman for the KIRA committee.

Thousands of trainee doctors working at general hospitals began the strike on Aug. 21 to protest the government's medical reform scheme that calls for increasing the quota for medical students, establishing a new public medical school and giving medical insurance coverage to oriental medicine treatment. These numbers were augmented by other doctors, who have supported the walkout.

Friday's deal raised hope for the normalization of hospital operations amid the COVID-19 pandemic, but it angered the junior doctors, who said their views were not properly reflected in it.

As of Monday, the health ministry said 6,725, or 72.8 percent, of 9,235 trainee doctors had not reported back for duty, with the strike participation rate for fellow doctors standing at 19.2 percent.

KIRA and medical students have balked at the KMA's deal with the government, saying they will continue to reject the state medical licensing exam in protest over the agreement.

The exam, however, will be carried out as scheduled, the health ministry reaffirmed. A total of 446 out of 3,172 exam applicants, or 14 percent, will take the exam, according to the ministry.

The government and hospitals have been urging doctors to halt the strike, as their collective action has disrupted medical services at hospitals and other medical centers amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

Trainee doctors protest the agreement between the Korean Medical Association, the ruling Democratic Party and health ministry at the Korea Health Promotion Institute in downtown Seoul, on Sept. 4, 2020. (Yonhap)

Related to lingering tension regarding trainee doctors' return to work, a group of medical school deans and senior officials of national hospitals issued a statement urging concerted effort to deal with COVID-19 first.

"Once the coronavirus issue is resolved, there should be ample time to discuss outstanding issues that triggered the walkout," they said, adding doctors needed to show more patience and wait for positive results.

Later in the day, interns and resident doctors at Seoul Asan Medical Center, Seoul National University Hospital, Seoul Samsung Medical Center and Catholic University of Korea Seoul St. Mary's Hospital said they plan to return for duty on Tuesday. Hospitals said they plan to check returning doctors for coronavirus and start assigning them to shifts.


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