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Yoon touts doctors' immunity to salvage shortage sectors

Yoon vows to spend more than W10tr to increase medical fees in ER, pediatrics

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Feb. 1, 2024 - 15:37

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (front, right) takes note during a public debate that touched upon the issue of medical reform at the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Presidential office) President Yoon Suk Yeol (front, right) takes note during a public debate that touched upon the issue of medical reform at the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Thursday. (Presidential office)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Thursday said the government would pursue legislation to alleviate the legal risks from medical accidents for medical staff.

The conservative administration said that doctors' immunity from prosecution in relation to medical accidents could help doctors and other medical staff focus on their duty to take care of their patients.

South Korea is suffering a chronic shortage of medical staff, including doctors.

While restricting lawsuits seeking criminal punishment for medical staff from the victims of medical accidents, the Yoon administration looks to establish a process that would allow victims of such accidents to be promptly compensated without necessarily going through litigation.

"I'm asking (the judicial authorities) to refrain from embarking on criminal investigations into medical staff as soon as they are accused of medical accidents," Yoon told some 60 participants in the eighth public debate that took the place of the New Year briefing, held at the Seoul National University Bundang Hospital in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province.

"This will otherwise leave patients in jeopardy," he added.

Yoon gave the example of an incident in 2017 where four newborn babies died of cardiac arrest within a couple of hours at Ewha Womans University Medical Center. Seven medical professionals were later acquitted of charges of professional negligence at the Supreme Court in 2022. Yoon argued that the fallout over the incident drove medical school students to avoid specializing in pediatrics.

"Many medical staff were brought to investigators for questioning and were indicted," Yoon said. "Since then, students would hate to become pediatricians no matter how much they are paid. Once they get involved, they will face tremendous damage."

This is accelerating the arrival of the medical infrastructure crisis in South Korea, he added, while leaving medical staff vulnerable to those who "strategically file suits" against them for medical accidents.

Speaking of the medical crisis, Yoon said patients could not be admitted to the emergency room immediately due to hospital staff shortages, and said people often queue up for their sick children at pediatrics clinics before their opening hours.

"We can't call a country where these phenomena became buzzwords a good country to live in," Yoon said. "It would be shameful to see those in remote areas lacking access to proper medical services.

"South Korea boasts world-class medical staff and we've built the best health insurance system in the world, but I feel bad because we are concerned that the medical infrastructure might be on the verge of collapse," Yoon added.

A coalition of nine civic groups representing victims of medical accidents blasted Yoon's announcement Thursday, saying that the administration should stop pursuing the legislation.

The groups told reporters at the National Assembly that victims and bereaved families of those who suffered medical accidents are "absolutely powerless," saying that South Korea should instead introduce a law to require medical staff to provide an explanation of the accident.

The Yoon administration touted the set of measures as a "safety net" for both the medical staff and the victims of the medical accidents. This was one of the four key pillars of Yoon's medical system reform to address the staffing crisis.

Particularly, Yoon pledged to disburse at least 10 trillion won ($7.5 billion) from the national health insurance reserve by 2028 to increase medical fees for medical staff in sectors suffering staffing shortages, such as emergency rooms, children's clinics, obstetrics and gynecology clinics, and more

Moreover, Yoon highlighted the need to increase the quota of medical schools in the country beginning next year. The government, however, did not elaborate Thursday on how many doctors the government plans to increase the quota by.

Medical schools across Korea currently admit 3,058 students each year. The supply of doctors will be outnumbered by demand nationwide by about 15,000 in 2035, according to a government estimate.

Groups representing doctors in South Korea have opposed the plan.

Lee Pil-soo, president of the Korea Medical Association, said Thursday its 4 million members would vote for the party that lays out the most optimal pledge for them.

Health Minister Cho Kyu-hong said during his briefing on the margins of the public debate that a new presidential committee will be established to speed up the process of dealing with the nationwide medical crisis.