(News Focus) Nurses, doctors clash over controversial nursing act
By Kim Boram
SEOUL, May 19 (Yonhap) -- Over the past few months, the South Korean medical community has been divided sharply over the nursing act, with the Korean Nurses Association (KNA) and the Korean Medical Association (KMA) staging multiple rallies and the government and political parties fueling the debate.
The nursing act was designed to clarify the roles and responsibilities of nurses and nursing assistants separately from other health professionals of medical doctors, dentists and Korean medicine doctors depicted in the Medical Service Act.
The bill passed the National Assembly in April led by the main opposition Democratic Party (DP), but President Yoon Suk Yeol rejected the bill on Tuesday, saying the move to separate nursing services from medical institutions is causing confusion in the medical circle and threatening public health.
As a vetoed bill needs two-thirds of a quorum of lawmakers to re-pass the parliament, it is not likely to be discussed again.
Nurses denounced the president's veto, claiming that the new law is just aimed at providing a legal basis to improve their working conditions, not at opening the door for them to practice medicine.
They argued that nurses have suffered from excessive work and chronic workforce shortage as the Medical Service Act broadly stipulates their legal roles and duties, saying nurses should provide "assistance in medical treatment under the guidance of a medical doctor, dentist, or Korean medicine doctor."
Nurses have long called for a separate nursing law to clearly define staffing levels and protect them from performing duties outside their job descriptions. In practice, they claimed many nurses are forced to comply with doctors' directions to work as a physical assistant, which violates the current medical law.
Despite the separate nursing act, nurses are still not allowed to open their own clinics under the current medical law, they noted.
"The nursing act is a law for national health and social health care that legalizes the government's duties to foster quality nursing personnel, allocate workforce and secure skilled nurses," the KNA, which represents some 500,000 licensed nurses nationwide, said in a statement released in April.
The KNA also demanded Yoon keep his presidential campaign promise to make a separate law for nurses, and vowed to do their best to enact the nursing act again. Along with a nationwide rally slated for Friday, they will stage a work-to-rule strike and do exactly what is stated in the written rules and procedures.
Last year, the International Council of Nurses (ICN) expressed its support for the nursing act, saying that the law will ensure decent working conditions for nurses and provide a clear framework for nursing.
"The ICN strongly supports the proposed Korean nursing act and believes that a legal framework underpinning nurses and nursing practice is imperative for the protection of nurses and patients alike," it said in a statement published on April 19, 2022.
However, doctors welcomed the president's veto, arguing the legislation would cause confusion in the medical sector because it could lead to nurses opening their own clinics and practicing medicine without doctors' supervision.
At the same time, nursing assistants and other paramedic workers, such as radiological technologists, emergency medical technicians, and medical technologists, are also against the nursing law as it privileges nurses and creates discrimination against them.
Doctors and 12 other types of health care workers had staged joint strikes since the bill was proposed, but canceled future plans following President Yoon's veto.
"The nursing act is not a law to improve poor working conditions of nurses. But it is an outcome of a political alignment led by nurse groups, who attempt to monopolize health care programs in the local community," the KMA said in a joint statement released Monday.
Along with the ruling People Power Party, the Ministry of Health and Welfare has opposed the nursing act and asked the president to reject the bill.
"The nursing act is expected to break the cooperation and confidence in the medical circle and it will affect public health," Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said in a press conference earlier this week. "If we separate nursing from medicine, people may not get full nursing service from medical institutions."
Instead, the ministry said the government will take full responsibility for improving nurses' working conditions, including addressing excessive workloads, and expanding public health care services in local communities.
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