(Bloomberg) -- South Korea’s largest lobby group for doctors held a one-day nationwide strike Tuesday, turning up the heat on a four-month labor action against the government’s decision to increase spots at medical schools.  

About 10,000 doctors gathered near parliament in Seoul for a street protest, demanding the government to drop its plan to increase enrollments and called for blocking any punishments against those who have been a part of the walkout, Yonhap News reported. 

Medical facilities and emergency rooms remained open but some parts of the health-care system felt strains from reduced staffing.

The government said early Tuesday about 4% of the 36,371 community hospitals spread out around the country have reported they would close for the labor action.

The head of the Korean Medical Association, the major lobby group for doctors behind the street protest, said physicians will walk out indefinitely from June 27 unless the government accepts its demands, according to an emailed statement. The government has rejected the proposal.

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s administration ordered community hospitals to resume work and warned of reprisals for any illegal actions that violate the country’s medical laws. It has also finalized its plans to increase medical school enrollments by about 1,500 slots from next year from the current 3,058 to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks among the most acute in the developed world. 

Yoon told a cabinet meeting Tuesday the government “has no choice but to take a firm stance against illegal acts of patient abandonment,” and urged medical professionals to return to work.

The increase is the first in nearly three decades and surveys show the public is behind the move aimed at providing more medical professionals in more places to care for people in the rapidly aging country. 

Nearly 100 organizations representing people seeking medical care, such as the Union of Korea Breast Cancer Patient, have called for the doctors to halt the walkouts.

The doctors contend the enrollment plan won’t fix fundamental problems such as a shortage of physicians in fields seen as lower paying, a concentration of doctors in urban areas and a malpractice system they argue makes it difficult for them to do their jobs effectively. 

South Korean doctors rank among the best paid among Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development members in comparison to average wages, which has led to criticism the labor action may be more about protecting the earning power of physicians rather than improving the health-care system. 

As the labor action has dragged on, people seeking health care have been putting off procedures, trying telemedicine and going to local clinics instead of emergency rooms. The government has allowed nurses to take on more tasks, opened up emergency rooms in military hospitals to the public and deployed some of its doctors serving in the military to civilian facilities.

South Korea, Japan and other countries place quotas on medical school seats as a way to regulate the number of doctors. Yoon’s government has reduced its quota plan from an additional 2,000 seats to the current 1,500, but doctors groups have said that is not good enough.

The walkout started in February when nearly all of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors walked off the job. The trainee doctors, similar to medical interns, play key roles in surgeries and emergency care.

Several hundred doctors at major hospital groups including one from Seoul National University launched an indefinite walkout from Monday. Emergency rooms and intensive care medical units will remain open, a spokesperson for the hospital said.

 

--With assistance from Shinhye Kang and Soo-Hyang Choi.

(Updates with details on event.)

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