South Korea nurses to take on more medical work due to doctor walkout

By Thomson Reuters Feb 26, 2024 | 8:15 PM

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean nurses have been given legal protection to perform some medical procedures normally conducted by doctors, the health minister said on Tuesday, as authorities seek to ease the burden on hospital staff caused by a walkout of trainee doctors.

Nurses have complained about the legal risk and heavier workload they face after trainee doctors walked off the job last week to protest against a government plan to boost the number of medical school admissions to address a shortage of doctors.

More than two-thirds of the country’s resident and intern doctors have left their posts, disrupting services at major hospitals, where emergency rooms have turned away patients and surgeries and other procedures were cancelled or postponed.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said the government was activating a programme that “legally protects nurses performing procedures within a medical institution” and the scope of the work they can perform will be determined by the hospitals.

The government has invited the striking doctors to hold a dialogue but the two sides have yet to meet. Senior doctors and private practitioners have not joined the walkout but have held rallies and urged the government to scrap its plan.

Cho repeated a plea to the more than 9,000 young doctors who have joined the walkout to return to work by Feb. 29 so that they can be spared punishment including suspension of licences and possible prosecution and arrest.

The young doctors who have joined the protest say the government should first address pay and working conditions before trying to increase the number of physicians.

In a package of policy plans to improve medical services, the government said it will increase the number of new medical students by 2,000 a year and expand legal protection against malpractice suits and prosecution.

It also plans to give incentives for doctors to practice in essential disciplines such as paediatrics and general surgery, and in regional areas where the shortage of doctors is more serious.

Cho said the government was speeding up efforts to legislate legal protection for doctors “of the kind not found in other countries” that will allow patients to swiftly get compensation for injuries suffered during medical procedures and doctors to focus on the work.

(Reporting by Jack Kim; Editing by Ed Davies; Editing by Stephen Coates)