Trainee doctors at hospitals on Friday launched a one-day strike in protest of the government's medical workforce reform plan, but there was no major disruptions reported as hospitals mobilized alternative health workers.
The Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA), a group of interns and resident doctors, began the 24-hour walkout earlier in the day in opposition to the government's plan to raise admission quotas at medical schools.
Around 70 percent of the group's 16,000 members took part in the collective action.
The Korea Medical Association (KMA), which represents 130,000 doctors, plans to stage a separate general strike next Friday.
As part of the country's medical workforce reform plan, the health ministry is planning to expand admission quotas at medical schools by 4,000 over the next 10 years, starting in 2022, and to open a new public medical school as it seeks to broaden the reach of health care services.
This will increase the number of students admitted annually to medical schools to 3,458 in the 2022-2031 period from the current 3,058, according to the plan.
Doctors have opposed what they called the government's "hasty and unilateral" decision.
The strike had spawned concerns about a potential disruption in the health care system as trainee doctors working at general hospitals' essential fields, including intensive care units, surgery and emergency rooms, joined the strike.
But major general hospitals avoided major problems in treating patients as they mobilized clinical doctors, medical professors and other health workers in advance to reduce possible disruptions.
Surgeries and tests that were not deemed urgent were rescheduled in advance. Hospitals also dispatched more nurses to screening centers to conduct new coronavirus tests.
"Waiting time is not much longer than usual," said a 72-year-old man who was waiting to see a doctor at Asan Medical Center in southern Seoul.
Trainee doctors, estimated at some 6,000, held an outdoor rally in Seoul's financial district of Yeouido to call on the government to reconsider its medical workforce plan.
"The government is trying to press ahead with the move to raise the admission quotas without sincere discussions and grounds." KIRA said in a statement.
"The government should reflect the voice of young doctors in setting up all medical policies."
The government voiced regret that the group pushed ahead with the work stoppage despite its calls for talks to resolve the issue.
"It is very regrettable that trainee doctors suspended essential treatment directly linked to people's lives and safety," Vice Health Minister Kim Ganglip said in a briefing.
The government earlier called on trainee doctors to retract their planned strike, as it could put people's lives at risk amid the new coronavirus outbreak.
The health ministry and KIRA made last-ditch efforts Thursday to resolve the issue, but the talks fell through.
The government earlier warned it would take stern actions if the walkout caused harm to people's health and safety. (Yonhap)