Seoul turns to foreign doctors as medical strike drags on

Doctors protest against the government’s plan to raise the annual enrolment quota at medical schools, in Seoul, on Feb 25. PHOTO: AFP

SEOUL (AFP): South Korea will allow foreign doctors to work in its hospitals after a rigorous vetting process, the prime minister said Friday, as a months-long strike by junior medics shows no sign of resolution.

Thousands stopped working on February 20 to protest government plans to train more doctors, causing chaos in hospitals.

The government, which has already offered some concessions in a bid to end the standoff, said this week that doctors with foreign medical licenses would be allowed to practice in the country, in a bid to ease service disruptions.

After the move was announced, the head of the Korean Medical Association (KMA), Lim Hyun-taek, shared a screenshot of a news report on newly graduated Somali doctors with the comment: "Coming Soon."

The post, which was later removed, prompted widespread online criticism, and was highly inappropriate and "clearly racist", Kim Jae-heon, the secretary-general of an NGO advocating free medical care, told AFP.

The post "exploited Islamophobia and stereotyping against developing countries", he said.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said Friday the government will make sure to "have a thorough safety system to prevent unqualified doctors (with foreign licences) from treating our people".

The government is locked in a protracted standoff with the junior doctors, who have refused to return to their hospitals, despite the health ministry offering last month to scale back proposed medical training reforms for 2025.

The striking doctors have rejected the offer, demanding instead that the plan to create more doctors -- which the government says is essential to combat shortages and care for a rapidly ageing population -- be scrapped entirely.

The fight over the government's medical plan is currently before the Seoul High Court, with doctors and medical students seeking to prove it is unnecessary, and the health ministry seeking to uphold the government plan.

An administrative court has already ruled in the government's favour, and the Seoul High Court is expected to deliver its decision next week, according to South Korea's Yonhap news agency. - AFP

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