South Korea doctors hold mass rally protesting medical school quota hike plan

Seoul, March 3 (IANS): Tens of thousands of doctors held a rally in Seoul on Sunday to protest the government's medical school quota hike plan as South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo hinted at the possible suspension of medical licenses for striking trainee doctors.

The rally by member doctors of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), the biggest medical lobby group, came as thousands of trainee doctors have remained off their jobs at general hospitals for the 13th day, protesting the plan to add 2,000 more medical school seats starting next year, Yonhap news agency reported.

Crowds of doctors filled up a street in Seoul's western district of Yeouido, waving protesting flags and holding up signs reading "Absolute opposition to a medical school quota hike without agreement from medical fields," or "Unprepared medical school quota hike compromises medical education."

Kim Taek-woo, the KMA's emergency committee chief, warned at the start of the rally that "the government will face resistance from the public if it turns a blind eye to doctors' efforts and attempts to repress them."

Kim accused the government of unilaterally pursuing medical reform without prior consultation with the medical field, while calling on the government to engage in dialogue with protesting doctors to resolve the ongoing walkout.

"No trainee doctors or members of the KMA's emergency committee have ever encouraged or desired the crippling of medical services," he said, protesting that the government is using pressure to bring trainee doctors back to work while remaining uncompromising over its quota hike plan.

About 9,000 medical interns and residents, who play a vital role in assisting with surgeries and emergency services at major general hospitals, have maintained their collective labor action for the 13th day, leading to mass cancellations and delays in surgeries and emergency medical treatment.

The government gave protesting doctors until last Thursday to return to work, warning them that incompliance could result in punitive action, including criminal punishment or revocation of their doctors' licenses.

So far, the warning has done little to bring them back to work.

"If the situation of illegally vacating medical sites continues, the government will fulfill the duty entrusted by the Constitution and the law without hesitation," Han said at a meeting on the doctors' collective action at the main government building in central Seoul.

The presidential office also vowed to respond with "zero tolerance" after allegations emerged online that some doctors were trying to forcibly mobilize drug salesmen for their rally protesting the government's medical school quota hike plan.

Ahead of Sunday's rally, several postings appeared on online communities, claiming that some doctors were forcing salesmen of pharmaceutical companies to join the gathering.

Salesmen of pharmaceutical companies are often under the sway of doctors who have the authority to prescribe or change certain drugs. A posting said, "I am being forcibly mobilized because a doctor I trade with said he will change drugs if I do not show up."

Responding to the allegations, the presidential office warned "any illegal acts will be dealt with the principle of zero tolerance."

A presidential official told Yonhap News Agency, "We are watching the situation in real time with regard to the threats to the public's lives and health rights from the doctors' collective action."

Officials said police launched a legal review of the allegations, saying the allegations, if found to be true, could constitute illegal coercion and violations of the Medical Service Act.

Police have also imposed an overseas travel ban on four former and current KMA executives, including incumbent emergency committee chief Kim, as a police investigation into them broadens on suspicions of instigating and conniving in the trainee doctors' walkout.

Separately, Interior Minister Lee Sang-min also renewed back-to-work calls on trainee doctors, saying that trainee doctors will be granted leniency if they return to their hospitals by Sunday.

"For trainee doctors who return to work by today, the government plan to grant utmost leniency ... if they fail to return by today, the government has no choice but to deal with them sternly in accordance with the law and principles," Lee said during his appearance on a live news program with KBS.

The minister stressed that the increase of 2,000 additional medical school admissions is not substantial given the workforce required for the development of the bio industry, which he said will emerge as a new growth engine of South Korea.


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Title: South Korea doctors hold mass rally protesting medical school quota hike plan

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