SEOUL: South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck Soo urged thousands of trainee doctors Tuesday to return to work after mass resignations protesting the government’s decision to increase the medical school admission quota, saying none of them will be held accountable if they end the collective action by Thursday.

Han made the remark during a Cabinet meeting, reiterating the government’s ultimatum giving interns and resident doctors until Thursday to return to work or face punitive action, such as the suspension of their medical licenses, as their walkout entered its eighth day.

“As stated by the government the previous day, if doctors return to hospitals by Feb 29, no one will be held accountable,“ Yonhap news agency quoted Han as saying.

According to the health ministry, over 10,000 trainee doctors from major teaching hospitals in Seoul and elsewhere have submitted their resignations, with nearly 9,000 of them not reporting for work.

Hospitals have continued to face disruptions, cancelling or postponing nonessential procedures and turning away non-emergency patients to prioritise severe emergency cases.

However, more junior doctors, who play a vital role in assisting with surgeries and emergency services, are expected to join the protest, with new medical school graduates reportedly refusing to take internships.

“As healthcare professionals, we must once again reflect on our duty, which places the lives of the people above all,“ Han said.

The government argues that the country needs to train more doctors to meet the challenges posed by a rapidly aging society, pointing to examples of other major developed countries facing physician shortages.

However, striking doctors argue that there are already enough physicians and that increasing the quota of medical students would lead to unnecessary medical costs.

They further claim that the plan fails to address issues, such as overburdening and the lack of incentives for doctors specialising in pediatrics and other essential healthcare services. - Bernama, Yonhap

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