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Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong announced at a meeting on Sunday that 138 public health physicians and twenty military surgeons will be stationed in 20 hospitals for a period of four weeks

In an effort to assist in caring for patients impacted by the almost 12,000 trainee doctors’ walkout from 100 hospitals over government reform plans, South Korea will begin sending military physicians and medical professionals from public health centres to hospitals that are affected by the strike on Monday.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong announced at a meeting on Sunday that 138 public health physicians and twenty military surgeons will be stationed in 20 hospitals for a period of four weeks.

According to a briefing by the defence ministry, the number of military doctors called upon to assist has only been a small portion of the about 2,400 military doctors.

While some hospitals have been forced to turn away patients and postpone medical operations, the administration has disputed that the strike, which began on February 20, has resulted in a serious health crisis.

As of Friday morning, nearly 12,000 protesting doctors at 100 hospitals had left their posts in a dispute over a government plan to increase medical school admissions, health ministry data showed, defying pressure from authorities to return to work.

South Korean authorities have been trying to coax the doctors to return to work by warning them that their medical licences could be suspended but so far appear to have had little success with the tactic.

The health ministry said notices had been sent to more than 4,900 doctors as of Friday to instruct them that authorities could start suspending licences if they did not explain their action.

Doctors who returned to work before the administrative measure to suspend licences was complete would be “given leniency”, Cho told KBS Radio on Monday.

The government has the power to order doctors back to work if it deems there is a serious risk to lives and public health.

The government has said the plan to increase annual medical school admissions by 2,000 starting from 2025 is vital to remedy a shortage of doctors in one of the world’s fastest-ageing societies.

The striking doctors argue that simply adding medical students will not address pay and work conditions, and could possibly exacerbate the problems.

Critics of the policy also accuse President Yoon Suk Yeol of picking a fight over medical reforms to benefit his party ahead of parliamentary elections in April.

A survey published last week by the Yonhap news agency found 84% of respondents supported adding more doctors, while 43% said striking physicians should be sternly punished.

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