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South Korean trainee doctors resign in protest against med-school quota increase policy

Thousands of trainee doctors in South Korea submit resignations in protest of government’s plan to increase medical school enrollment. President Yoon calls it intolerable, emphasizing the potential collapse of the medical system.



South Korea's doctors walk out
(Photo: Yonhap)

SOUTH KOREA: Thousands of trainee doctors voiced their dissent by collectively submitting resignation letters in protest against the government’s plan to increase the annual enrollment quota at medical schools on Tuesday (20 Feb).

Health Minister Cho Kyu-hong recently announced a decision to increase the annual enrollment quota at medical schools by 2,000, starting in 2025, from the current 3,058.

The government’s objective is to improve public access to medical services, particularly in rural areas, and tackle persistent shortages of physicians in critical fields like pediatrics and emergency care.

Despite strong opposition from doctors during a healthcare policy meeting, the Ministry of Health and Welfare proceeded with the plan.

The intent behind this move is not only to address shortages in crucial medical areas but also to rejuvenate regional medical services.

President Yoon Suk Yeol underlined the urgency of this initiative, citing the country’s need for an additional 15,000 doctors by 2035, driven by the increasing demand for healthcare in an aging population.

However, doctors argue that the expanded quota may not effectively address shortages, particularly in specialties such as emergency care, characterized by low pay and poor working conditions.

Their concern extends to the potential burden on hospitals and the compromise of overall medical service quality posed by the proposed plan.

As of Monday night (19 Feb), the Health Ministry reported that 6,415 trainee doctors from 100 teaching hospitals had submitted resignation letters, with approximately 1,630 of them physically leaving their hospital positions.

This alarming trend reflects a resignation rate exceeding 55% among junior doctors, a concerning statistic given the total count of 13,000 trainee doctors nationwide, as reported by The Korea Herald.

In response to the mass resignations, the government swiftly issued orders for 728 trainee doctors to return to work, supplementing the same directive given to 103 doctors previously.

The Health Ministry is set to inspect an additional 50 hospitals, closely monitoring trainee doctors who remain absent for extended periods.

Failure to comply with the return-to-work order may result in the suspension of their licenses.

Simultaneously, medical students have joined the strike by collectively taking a leave of absence.

According to the Education Ministry, as of Monday (19 Feb), 1,133 students from seven medical universities have applied for leave.

The submissions were accepted for just four students, who had claimed they had to serve their military duty or had personal reasons.

The status of the remaining 1,129 students’ participation in the collective action is yet to be clarified.

The overall extent of student participation remains uncertain, given the current total of 18,800 registered medical students in the country.

The Education Ministry emphasizes its close monitoring of campus activities and urges educational institutions to guide students and manage academic affairs in adherence to relevant laws and regulations.

President Yoon urges reconsideration as trainee doctors protest government’s medical reform

President Yoon Suk Yeol addressed the ongoing collective action of young doctors on Tuesday (20 Feb), urging them to reconsider their protest against the government’s medical reform policy.

In a Cabinet meeting, President Yoon emphasized that their collective action is adversely affecting people’s lives and health.

Expressing concern over the resignation of over 6,400 trainee doctors, with approximately 1,600 walking off their jobs in protest of the government’s plan to increase admissions to medical schools, President Yoon highlighted the impact on critical medical procedures.

During the meeting at the presidential office, President Yoon stressed the significance of protecting lives and safety, asserting that this responsibility is fundamental to the government’s existence.

He emphasized the necessity of managing medical resources effectively to safeguard the well-being of the people.

While acknowledging that doctors may not be considered public servants like soldiers or police, he asserted that they must not collectively refuse to provide medical treatment.

President Yoon further discussed the government’s plan to increase the annual enrollment quota by 2,000 starting next year, emphasizing that it meets only the minimum and falls “far short” of the required number.

He highlighted the rapid growth in demand for medical services, surpassing the supply, and the significant decline in essential medical fields, leading to a “collapse” of services, especially in rural areas.

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