South Korean Nurses Intensify Push for Separate Law Amid Healthcare Crisis

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The enactment of the nursing law in the current 21st National Assembly, which concludes on May 29, appears increasingly unlikely. (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

The enactment of the nursing law in the current 21st National Assembly, which concludes on May 29, appears increasingly unlikely. (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

SEOUL, May 29 (Korea Bizwire) – In a powerful display of their demands, around 20,000 nurses (according to organizers) gathered in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on May 23, raising their voices for the enactment of a separate nursing law.

After resident doctors left hospitals in protest of the government’s plan to increase medical school admissions, creating a healthcare vacuum, it has been the nurses who have remained at patients’ bedsides.

Now, they are calling on the government to keep its promise of enacting the long-awaited nursing law. 

For nurses, the nursing law has been a longstanding and unresolved issue. The proposed law aims to separate the regulations governing nurses’ duties and status from the current Medical Service Act, establishing an independent legal framework.

The rationale behind the law is to clearly define and protect the scope of nurses’ work. Legislative efforts have been made since around 2005, but they have repeatedly failed to materialize, often facing strong opposition from medical associations, particularly those representing doctors.

Last year, a nursing bill passed the National Assembly but was ultimately vetoed by the president.

One contentious point was a phrase stating that “all citizens should receive high-quality medical benefits in their communities,” which medical associations vehemently opposed, arguing that it could serve as a basis for allowing independent nurse practitioners, leading to the bill’s demise. 

The South Korean government steps up in support of the nurses (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

The South Korean government steps up in support of the nurses (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

The stalled nursing law regained momentum in the wake of the recent healthcare crisis caused by the collective resignation of resident doctors.

As nurses stepped in to fill the gap, their pivotal role was brought into the spotlight.

Facing a shortage of medical personnel, the government temporarily legalized the role of physician assistants (PAs) and agreed to the enactment of the nursing law. 

The government’s willingness to play the “nursing law card” has accelerated the push for its legislation.

The newly proposed nursing law has removed the controversial “community” phrase and instead specifies the scope of nurses’ work to include healthcare institutions, schools, industrial sites, home care facilities, and social welfare facilities.

A key aspect of the new bill is the institutionalization of PA nurses, who assist doctors with certain medical procedures like incisions and suturing.

These nurses have previously lacked legal protection due to the absence of relevant regulations. If more than 10,000 PA nurses are legalized, the government believes it could help alleviate the healthcare vacuum, even if resident doctors do not immediately return.

Nurses demand enactment of the nursing law (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

Nurses demand enactment of the nursing law (Image courtesy of Yonhap)

Despite the government’s support for the legislation, the enactment of the nursing law in the current 21st National Assembly, which concludes on May 29, appears increasingly unlikely.

The stalemate between the ruling and opposition parties has prevented the Health and Welfare Committee from convening, clouding the prospects of the bill’s passage.

Any unprocessed bills will automatically be discarded when the 22nd National Assembly opens on May 30. 

Tak Young-ran, the president of the Korean Nurses Association, criticized the situation, stating that while nurses have been working tirelessly to care for patients in the absence of doctors, they have been subjected to excessive workloads and illegal demands without legal protection due to the lack of relevant laws.

She warned that “if the medical situation caused by the increase in medical school admissions is resolved after the 22nd National Assembly convenes, nurses will once again become lawbreakers.” 

In response to the potential collapse of the nursing law’s enactment, nurses have declared that they will boycott the government’s pilot program for nurse’s duties, including PA nurses, if the bill fails to pass the 21st National Assembly.

This means they will halt medical procedures without legal protection if the PA nurse’s role is not legalized. The government has pledged to continue communicating with the nurses’ association to prevent a boycott and pursue legislation in the next assembly.

M. H. Lee ([email protected]



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