Nurses and other medical workers clash over Nursing Act

Nurses and other medical workers clash over Nursing Act

Members of the Korea Nurses Association stage a rally in front of the National Assembly, calling for the legislation of the Nursing Act, Nov. 23. Korea Times photo by Bae Woo-han

By Lee Hyo-jin

Controversy is deepening among different groups of medical staff over legislation of the Nursing Act, a law that stipulates the role and duties of licensed nurses.

The Korean Nurses Association (KNA), a group representing 460,000 nurses nationwide, has been calling for the legislation, insisting that the enactment will lay the groundwork for the improvement of nurse-related policies, which will improve their working conditions and resolve a chronic manpower shortage in the field.

However, other medical workers, such as doctors, care workers at nursing homes, assistant nurses and paramedics fiercely oppose the legislation, as they believe that the law will only benefit nurses and create confusion in the public healthcare system.

The Nursing Act, proposed by Rep. Kim Min-seok of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, along with two other similar bills, proposed by Rep. Seo Jeong-suk and Rep. Choi Yeon-suk of the main opposition People Power Party, is currently being discussed in the National Assembly.

Attention is being paid to whether the bills will be passed amid the ongoing disputes between the various groups of medical workers.

The KNA argues that the 460,000 licensed nurses across the country ― a figure that amounts to triple the number of doctors ― have long been suffering from poor working conditions due to the absence of a separate law stipulating the specific roles and duties of professional nurses.

Currently, the legal role of a nurse is stipulated in the Medical Services Act. But according to the nurses’ group, due to ambiguities in the law, many nurses are forced to perform duties outside their job descriptions, often leading to overwork and difficulty in providing quality care for patients.

According to the association, in Korea, each nurse takes care of 11 to 18 patients, approximately double the average of nurses in OECD countries, which stands at six to eight.

For this reason, the nurses have been calling for a separate law defining the legal role of a nurse, citing the growing importance of professional nurses for Korea’s aging society and in the pandemic era.

Nurses and other medical workers clash over Nursing Act

A coalition of medical groups opposing the legislation of the Nursing Act holds a press conference in front of the National Assembly, Nov. 22. Yonhap

“The Nursing Act must be passed in order to ensure safe and stable working conditions. The law does not aim to benefit only nurses, but to enhance public safety and guarantee quality care for patients,” Shin Kyung-rim, head of the KNA, said during a rally in front of the National Assembly, Nov. 23.

“Currently, 90 countries, including the United States, Japan, China and Taiwan, have Nursing Acts. The 460,000 nurses and 120,000 students at nursing schools across the country will continue to fight for the legislation,” she said, urging lawmakers to pass the bill.

On the other hand, other medical groups strongly oppose the legislation.

A coalition of 10 such groups, including the Korea Medical Association, Korea Care Association, Korean Dental Association and the Korean Licensed Practical Nurses Association, held a press conference, Nov. 22, demanding that lawmakers retract the proposed bill.

Doctors worry that the law may allow nurses to intervene in the duties of physicians. The current medical law stipulates that nurses should provide care to patients by “assisting” doctors. But the amendment says that nurses should perform their duties “in accordance with the patients’ needs.”

“The Nursing Act includes clauses that will benefit only the nurses. And this law will not only affect the nurses, but also doctors and other practitioners, resulting in confusion at healthcare sites,” said Lee Pil-soo, head of the Korea Medical Association, the largest doctors’ group representing 140,000 members.

The doctors also expressed concerns that the bill, if passed, may create the legal basis for nurses to open their own clinics.

Assistant nurses and care workers at nursing homes, for their part, believe that the legislation will put the nurses in a higher position than them, leading to situations in which they will have to take orders from nurses.

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