April 23, 2024

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South Korean Doctors Brace for Strike as Medical School Admissions Surge

South Korean Doctors Brace for Strike as Medical School Admissions Surge

South Korean Doctors Brace for Strike as Medical School Admissions Surge

The South Korean government recently announced plans to increase medical school admissions by 2,000 spots for the 2025 academic year, a 65% increase aimed at addressing the long-standing shortage of doctors in rural areas and basic medical fields.

However, this move has sparked strong criticism from the local medical community, who believe it will disrupt the country’s excellent healthcare system, impact medical quality, and have threatened to launch a large-scale strike on the 15th.

Despite this, the authorities are determined to take a tough stance, preparing to use various laws to prevent the strike and warning that doctors who do not report to work may have their licenses revoked.

With both sides taking a hardline approach, there are concerns that this East Asian country may face a medical crisis.

On February 13th, tensions between the South Korean government and doctors escalated, as an organization representing tens of thousands of junior doctors concluded their first discussion on participating in a nationwide strike without reaching a conclusion.

However, they decided to establish an emergency committee, which may take further action against the government’s plan to increase medical school admissions, including collective resignations, returning medical licenses, or mass refusal to see patients.

South Korean Doctors Brace for Strike as Medical School Admissions Surge

screenshot from youtube

Additionally, the Korean Medical Association (KMA) is preparing to launch a strike. The Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) has conducted a survey of 1,000 interns in 140 teaching hospitals, with 88% indicating they are willing to participate in collective protests.

Local doctors believe that the shortage of medical staff in some areas, especially in remote rural areas, is not due to a lack of doctors, but rather a lack of medical resources and poor working conditions, which should be addressed through system improvements. Local residents are concerned that if doctors from large hospitals participate in the strike, it will severely impact the medical situation. Roh Hwan-kyu, former president of the Korean Medical Association, stated, “The government cannot win this battle, and due to their stupidity, this will lead to a disaster, and ultimately, it is the people who will pay the price.”

Facing the looming doctor strike, the South Korean government has stated that this is only “the action of a few” and is rallying various departments to respond. The Ministry of Health and Welfare is organizing a task force, along with the Ministry of Justice, the police, and other units, to study how to respond to the doctors’ protests, and is expected to implement measures such as revoking licenses.

According to Yonhap News Agency, under the local Medical Act, if doctors refuse to practice, the authorities can order them to return to their posts; if they refuse to comply, their licenses can be suspended for up to one year, and they may even face up to three years in prison and have their licenses revoked. In addition, their affiliated medical institutions may be forced to close. Authorities can also invoke the Emergency Medical Act, the Fair Trade Act, and the Criminal Code to revoke the licenses of striking doctors.

South Korea has only 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, lower than the OECD average.

South Korea last increased medical school admissions in 1997, when admissions exceeded 3,500 people. Since then, this number has steadily declined, reaching 3,058 in 2006, and has remained unchanged since. The authorities hope that by increasing admissions, they can address the long-standing shortage of doctors, especially in basic medical fields such as emergency and pediatrics, as well as the shortage of doctors in small towns and remote areas, which has inconvenienced the public and threatens public health.

For years, hospitals in regions outside the capital and remote areas of South Korea have faced a shortage of doctors, forcing many patients to travel long distances for treatment. The local health department has pointed out that by 2035, an additional 15,000 doctors will be needed to meet the rapidly aging population and the growing demand due to increasing regional disparities, ensuring the urgent need for more doctors to provide basic medical services.

Official data from 2021 shows that South Korea has only 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, far below the OECD average of 3.7. This is also significantly lower than Austria, Norway, and Germany, which have 5.4, 5.2, and 4.5 doctors per 1,000 people, respectively. It is worrisome that the number of doctors serving in important fields such as pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology, and surgery has decreased significantly, with more doctors opting for ophthalmology, dermatology, and plastic surgery, which are more profitable and relatively comfortable specialties.

Last year, a series of incidents in South Korea where patients died because doctors refused to accept ambulances raised concerns in the local society. 

A series of medical accidents last year raised public concern

As early as last year, a series of incidents caused by doctor shortages had already sparked public outrage. In March 2023, a teenage girl fell from a building, and several hospitals turned away the ambulance carrying her, stating that the hospital was overcrowded with patients and that the surgical doctors were unable to help. As a result, the girl died in the ambulance. In May, a 5-year-old child with a fever was unable to receive timely treatment because the ambulance contacted four hospitals that lacked pediatricians, and the child died several days later. In the same month, a man in his 70s was hit by a car and was rejected by 10 hospitals during transport. He died in the ambulance two hours later.

In response to these incidents, South Korean citizens were extremely angry, as they found that shortages of doctors in emergency, cardiothoracic surgery, internal medicine, and pediatrics could lead to life-threatening delays. Moreover, these events all occurred in large cities with relatively adequate medical infrastructure, which may indicate that the situation in rural areas is much worse, with potentially higher death and fatality rates.

In fact, from 2018 to 2022, there were as many as 37,000 cases in South Korea where hospitals refused ambulances, with one-third of the refusals due to a lack of relevant doctors. Based on data from these years, on average, only half of critically ill patients receive timely care, and about 40% of stroke patients, who require urgent care, do not receive immediate care from the first hospital they arrive at.

In recent years, South Korean society has become increasingly concerned about the shortage of doctors and understands its significant impact.

While the overall shortage of doctors is the main culprit behind these issues, some local doctors believe that the number of students admitted to medical schools in South Korea has actually been increasing over the past 10 years. “Continuing to expand medical school admissions in this situation may potentially squeeze the scale of admissions for science majors. Moreover, if the additional doctors all go into fields like plastic surgery and dermatology, expanding medical school admissions would be meaningless and would distort the medical industry,” they said.

Will the opposition be less than four years ago?

If South Korean doctors go on strike nationwide, it will be their fifth strike following protests in 2000, 2012, 2014, and 2020. In the last strike four years ago, the expansion of medical school admissions was also a major issue. However, due to public concerns about medical shortages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the government ultimately relented and withdrew the plan.

The administration of President Yoon Suk-yeol appears determined to respond firmly to the threat of a doctor strike this time?

However, President Yoon Suk-yeol’s office has stated that the plan to increase medical student admissions is “irreversible” this time and has indicated that the doctors’ strike plan lacks sufficient justification. Minister of Health Joo Kyung-hwan has emphasized that the government’s plan to expand medical school admissions is legal and has urged resident doctors and other trainees not to doubt the government’s efforts to improve hospital sustainability.

Analysts point out that although the South Korean government has yielded to doctor strikes in the past, the current situation is different. The conservative People Power Party is now the ruling party, and there is no political party opposing the increase in medical school admissions. On the other hand, the medical community is not entirely against increasing admissions. The Korean Hospital Association agrees that admissions should be increased but believes that the increase should not be immediate. They call on the authorities to adjust the scale of the increase to ensure the quality of doctor training.

Kim Iseul, a spokesperson for the Korean Medical Association, believes that the intensity of work for local doctors and hospitals is high, and medical malpractice compensation is becoming more severe. He believes that instead of blindly expanding admissions, it is more important to adjust the direction of medical education and create an external environment where doctors can work normally.

It remains unknown how many people will participate in tomorrow’s strike. After all, unlike past strike situations, the amendment to the Medical Services Act implemented by the South Korean government in May last year has become a “sharp sword” for authorities to suspend doctors’ licenses, making doctors more cautious. However, tensions between the South Korean government and the medical community have resurfaced after four years, and if both sides cannot resolve the dispute over the expansion of admissions, it is ultimately the South Korean society in need of medical services that will suffer.


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South Korean Doctors Brace for Strike as Medical School Admissions Surge

(source:internet, reference only)

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