Disruption feared as South Korea’s doctors announce strike over nursing bill

The association said they would hold a series of protests if the government does not accommodate their demands.

Lee Jaeeun

Lee Jaeeun

The Korea Herald


Lee Pil-soo, president of the Korea Medical Association, is on a hunger strike at the group's headquarters in Seoul on Tuesday, in protest of the passage of a controversial bill defining the roles and responsibilities of nurses. (Yonhap)

May 3, 2023

SEOUL – A group of doctors and other medical workers said Tuesday that they will stage a nationwide strike in protest of the passage of a so-called nursing bill, which they say would give nurses legal rights to establish their own medical institutions.

A statement released Tuesday morning said the association of 13 medical groups led by doctors and nursing assistants will go on a one-day nationwide strike on May 17.

The protest, which is planned for a weekday, is feared to disrupt the country’s medical services, as the association said most medical workers will join the general strike. The association claimed that it has a total of 4 million members, including doctors, dentists, nursing assistants, radiology technicians, dentists, emergency medical technicians and care workers.

This is not the first time Korean doctors have gone on strike. Most previously, in August 2020, doctors, along with interns and resident doctors at hospitals, protested against the government’s plan to expand admissions to medical schools, stirring up confusion in the industry. During the 2020 protest, a Busan man in his 40s who showed symptoms of drug addiction died after not receiving first aid for three hours. Another man in his 30s who collapsed from a heart attack in Gyeonggi-do also died after being notified that several hospitals could not accept him.

The association said they would hold a series of protests if the government does not accommodate their demands. They have been asking President Yoon Suk Yeol to veto the bill.

The association also plans to begin a partial strike on May 3 and May 11. Medical workers will only partially join the strike for certain periods during the day, either in the morning or the afternoon.

The Nursing Act is designed to provide a legal basis to improve nurses’ working conditions and guarantee access to nursing services in the community by specifying the roles and responsibilities of professional nurses. Nursing groups have argued that they have long been suffering from poor working environments, often leading to overwork, as their roles were not clearly specified in the law.

Doctors have opposed the bill, claiming that allowing nurses to visit patients and provide services independently would cause great confusion in the country’s healthcare system. Other medical professionals claim the new law would offer privileges and give too much authority to nurses as a group in the medical community.

The Ministry of Health and Welfare announced urgent countermeasures to deal with the planned strikes on Tuesday. It will support carrying out patient care through the community health centers or the flagship public medical centers, the facilities run by the ministry, including in the cities of Seoul, Daegu, Busan, Gwangju and on Jeju Island. It has around 50 flagship public medical centers across the country.

“I strongly ask medical workers to refrain from the strikes since those are linked directly with the health of the public,” the second vice minister of the Ministry of Health and Welfare, Park Min-soo, said.

Civic groups raised concerns that the clash between doctors and nurses would leave the country’s medical services in chaos. “This is a manifestation of group egoism. Medical workers should not try to achieve profits at the cost of human lives,” an official from the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice said.

The government is also criticizing both doctors and nurses that neither is stepping back for a possible compromise.

“The nurses group did not make any concession by not accepting the government-mediated settlement,” an official at the Ministry of Health and Welfare said on condition of anonymity.

“Other medical workers groups also show their collective egoism by threatening to strike. Collective action putting people at risk and taking public health hostage can not be welcomed by the public.”

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