(Bloomberg) -- A widespread walkout by South Korean trainee doctors is heading toward its second week with no sign that the government, which says the country urgently needs to boost the number of physicians, will back down from its plan. 

Creating an additional 2,000 slots for medical schools remains a necessity, Sung Taeyoon, President Yoon Suk Yeol’s director of national policy, said at a briefing Sunday. Yoon’s plan is part of an effort to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks the nation near the bottom of Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members. 

Labor groups backing the doctors contend the plan won’t fix fundamental problems in the health-care system that they say include a lack of specialists in certain fields, too many doctors being concentrated in urban areas and poor working conditions. Critics say the doctors are more worried about seeing their incomes fall if there are more physicians in the country. 

The strike, which began last week, is already taking a toll: Nearly 8,000 local trainee doctors out of a total of about 13,000 didn’t report for work as of Friday. To minimize the impact on patients, the health ministry is monitoring 409 local emergency centers while opening 97 state-run hospitals during the weekend. 

Last week, the health ministry ordered 6,038 trainee doctors — who function like medical residents in other nations — to go back to work and said resignation letters submitted by 9,275 trainee doctors have not been accepted.  

Lee Sang-min, South Korea’s minister of the Interior and Safety, warned that the government will undertake investigations if doctors continue to collectively refuse to provide medical service despite an order to return to work. 

So far, the health impact on the population isn’t clear. But local television has shown interviews with patients and their families who said they arrived at hospitals which, because of the strike, couldn’t serve them, so they headed out to find health facilities where they could receive care. 

Read More: Why South Korea Doctors Stage Walkout Over Med School Slots

South Korea raised its health-care alert to the highest level and the government is making preparations for a prolonged strike. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said Friday that operating hours at public medical institutions will be extended. Authorities will allow all hospitals and clinics to provide telemedicine services until the strike ends. 

The Korean Medical Association, a main lobby group for doctors, held a rally in Seoul on Sunday and is planning another one for March 3. 

Despite the stalemate, Yoon’s plan has strong support among the public and the standoff has given him a modest bump ahead of parliamentary elections in April, according to polls. He’s pitched the current effort as just the first step in boosting the number of physicians, saying around 15,000 additional doctors are needed by 2035.


--With assistance from Emily Yamamoto.

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