(Bloomberg) -- South Korean trainee doctors plan to maintain their labor action past a Thursday deadline to return to work after thousands walked off the job to protest a government plan to increase medical school seats, a group representative said.

“We have no change in our plan for protest,” Joo Sooho, a spokesman for the Korean Medical Association, the country’s biggest lobby group for doctors, said in an interview Wednesday. He added it’s a matter of individual choice on whether doctors return, but those who have walked out have shown no change in their position.

The group expects a major show of force with a rally Sunday with some 20,000 doctors anticipated to attend, as it demands the government to scrap the plan it sees as failing to address problems in the health-care system. Yonhap News agency and other local media have reported that some of the doctors in the walkout have been trickling back to work.

“They believe increasing the number of medical students is the only way to solve the problem, which is not true,” Joo said. He added the group wants to sit down with the government to improve the system, rather than expanding the workforce.

More than 70% of the nation’s 13,000 trainee doctors have walked off the job to protest the plan to increase the number of seats at medical schools by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks as among the most acute in the developed world.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government has shown no signs of backing down from the plan. Adding more doctors in more places, it says, could relieve strains to the medical system caused by a rapidly aging population. 

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South Korea filed a criminal complaint against five doctors it suspects of encouraging the mass walkout, taking the first legal step that could lead to the stripping of medical licenses for those in the labor action. 

Yoon’s government has threatened to arrest and prosecute those who refuse to comply by the government order and is looking at suspending the licenses of doctors for encouraging a labor action that it says defies the medical regulations. There has been no clarity as to the details of actual deadline but the government has indicated if doctors are not back at their posts by March 1, they will be in defiance of orders to return to work — and risk having their medical licenses suspended.

The trainee doctors, similar to medical residents, play key roles in emergency care, and the walkout has led to about a 50% reduction in surgeries and caused emergency rooms to turn away people due to staffing shortages, the government said. 

The doctors have contended the government’s plan does not address fundamental problems such as poor working conditions, a concentration of physicians in urban areas and not enough protection from malpractice suits. 

Critics of the walkout contend the labor action may be more about protecting the earning power of doctors, which ranks near the top among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries, rather than improving the quality of the South Korean health-care system.

While the government is sticking to its plan to increase slots at medical schools by 2,000, it has indicated it’s willing to negotiate. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said the government is looking at ways to improve conditions for trainee doctors that include higher pay and fewer working hours. 

South Korea, Japan and other countries place quotas on medical school seats in a way to regulate the number of doctors. While Japan, which faces a similar demographic challenge as its neighbor, has raised its quota in recent years and offered incentives to practice in less-populated regions, Yoon’s government said South Korea has not increased the number of slots at medical schools for nearly three decades.

No matter how many seats are added to medical schools, doctors will not want to choose certain fields such as surgery or pediatrics due the risks of medical disputes, Joo said.

“We want to talk to the government to change the nation’s health-care system, in a way that encourage graduates to work at critical sectors,” Joo said.

Polling indicates wide support among the public for the government plan. 

Yoon has seen his support rate rise to a three-month high in a weekly tracking poll from Gallup Korea as he has not bowed to pressure to scrap or reduce his plan to increase medical school seats. This could help his conservative People Power Party in April elections, where it is trying to take control of parliament from the progressive Democratic Party. 

“It is the government that caused this situation. We have been trying to solve this kind of problem for a long time,” Joo said.


--With assistance from Jenny Lee, Emily Yamamoto and Shinhye Kang.

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