A government push to exempt doctors from facing criminal charges for medical errors is stirring controversy here, with patient and civic groups opposing the idea, as it would make it even more difficult to prove harm done to them.
The Ministry of Health and Welfare has recently launched a consultative body where it, doctors’ groups, civic groups and legal experts discuss measures to resolve medical disputes and find ways to draw doctors to essential medical fields.
It came as Korea is currently struggling with severe doctor shortages in vital fields. Key specializations such as pediatrics, obstetrics, cardiothoracic surgery and neurosurgery have faced significant operational crises, affecting patients in regional areas, the ministry said.
According to a recent report released by the National Medical Center, among 250 cities, counties and districts nationwide, 108 cities, counties and districts are classified as "medically vulnerable areas" in terms of patient access to proper medical care before giving birth or in an emergency. Based on the threshold in the report, for over 30 percent of the residents of these areas, it took over 60 minutes each to get a delivery room, mainly due to the shortage of obstetricians.
Doctors’ groups have attempted to argue that the issue of Korea's shortage of doctors in essential fields could be resolved by exempting doctors from criminal punishment in cases of medical error, saying that various unpredictable situations, including high-risk surgeries, occur in essential medical fields.
They have called for legal measures to protect doctors, arguing that fear of punishment is one of the reasons for doctor shortages in essential medical fields here.
In a survey conducted last year by the Korea Medical Association -- the country's largest coalition of doctors groups with 130,000 members -- targeting 1,159 members, 41.2 percent said the government should increase medical fees to support essential medical fields, followed by 28.8 percent calling for reducing doctors' legal responsibility for medical errors.
Last Thursday, the consultative body discussed various measures, including reducing the legal responsibility doctors have to bear in the case of medical errors.
The Health Ministry is discussing proposing a special law to exempt doctors from criminal punishment if medical errors occur when they are engaged in normal medical practice, according to multiple sources.
“We welcome the government's drive. It is urgently needed that doctors be given legal protection,” the KMA said.
However, the government's push has generated opposition from patients' groups, saying that medical malpractice is already difficult to prove here, even in a court of law.
“In any medical dispute, the patient must prove the harm that resulted from the medical practice was malpractice and has the burden of the responsibility to prove the illegality of the harm done," the Korea Alliance of Patients Organization said. "However, because patient conditions are variable and serious illnesses can exacerbate naturally, it is not easy to prove that a medical practitioner was responsible from the consequences of their medical practice. It is worrying that this special law will make it even more difficult to do so if it is enacted."
There have been a number of glaring medical malpractice cases due to doctors' professional negligence in recent years.
In 2018, a gynecologist at a university hospital in Incheon failed to remove an ovarian cyst in a woman in her 50s during surgery and instead removed her kidney by mistake.
“If doctors are unconditionally exempted from criminal punishment, that will threaten patients' safety,” civic group the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice said.