Government condemns doctors’ call for strike

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Government condemns doctors’ call for strike

The Ministry of Health and Welfare responded forcefully yesterday to threats by Korea’s largest association of doctors to go on a general strike next week.

The Korean Medical Association announced the strike on Saturday to protest the government’s medical deregulation plans, which include the introduction of telemedicine services.

The strike, scheduled to begin next Monday, would be the first time in 14 years that the 100,000-member association has held such a large-scale general walkout, which could mean suspension of medical services for an indefinite period.

The association’s doctors expressed concern the governments medical policies would favor larger hospitals over neighborhood and local clinics and lead to increased for-profit medicine.

In response, the Ministry of Health and Welfare yesterday said it could “not accept” a strike and that if a walkout is carried out, it would end a possibility of dialogue.

It also reassured the public that a strike “would not lead to a medical crisis” and would not affect emergency services.

“While the percentage of doctors supporting the strike is high, this was the medical community expressing discontent over government policy,” said Kwon Deok-cheol, a director of the ministry’s health care policy division, at a press briefing yesterday. “We expect the actual number of doctors who participate will be low and not impose a great inconvenience on the people.”

He said the participation rate is expected to be in the 20 percent to 30 percent.

Under the medical act, doctors who participate in a general strike and refuse to carry out their duties can face three years in prison or fines of up to 10 million won ($9,380).

Both ruling and opposition parties yesterday also expressed “regret” at the medical association’s decision and urged a halt to the strike.

The Korea Medical Association said nearly 47,000 doctors across the nation, or about 54 percent of all practicing doctors, took part in a vote held Feb. 21 to 28, with 76.69 percent supporting the strike.

“The government had the time and means to respond to our requests, but it did not,” said Roh Hwan-kyu, president of the medical association. “If our discussions with the government had been satisfactory, our members would not have agreed to a general strike.”

He said the duration and specific details of the strike will be announced later.

Tens of thousands of doctors rallied in central Seoul on Dec. 15 to protest the government’s plans.

Under the government’s deregulation plan, medical examinations over the Internet would be allowed to improve health care access for people living in remote areas, as well as for seniors and disabled patients who cannot freely move around.

The government expects the service could save patients with chronic diseases like high blood pressure and diabetes from having to travel large distances.

The medical association opposes the remote-treatment proposal, claiming it will put the health of patients at risk because it is too difficult for doctors to assess their patients accurately via computer.

But critics say the medical association’s opposition is rooted in the fear that rural medical clinics would end up losing patients to large, urban hospitals.

The government also denied that allowing hospitals to set up for-profit subsidiaries would lead to for-profit hospitals, emphasizing that the subsidiaries would be limited to such auxiliary functions as research and development, funerals and medical-related hotels.

In June 2000, tens of thousands of doctors held a six-day strike over changes to how drugs are prescribed and sold, bringing medical services to a virtual standstill.

BY SARAH KIM [sarahkim@joongang.co.kr]

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