South Korea Needs More Doctors. Here’s Why Trainees Are Threatening a Walkout

South Korea Needs More Doctors. Here’s Why Trainees Are Threatening a Walkout

South Korean trainee doctors opposing a government plan to drastically increase the number of people who can seek a medical degree threatened to resign in a move that could shake the health care system.

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Interns and residents at five major general hospitals groups, including Seoul National University Hospital, plan to submit their letters of resignations en masse Monday and walk off the job at 6 a.m. the following day, Park Dan, head of the Korea Intern Resident Association said in a Facebook post Friday.

The walkout is planned by 2,700 trainee doctors, who account for 37% of the total doctors at the hospitals and are the core of physicians on emergency duty, according to Yonhap News. The labor action could lead to disruptions in surgeries and prompt a wider collective action among more than 12,000 other senior doctors in the same labor group.

The government of President Yoon Suk Yeol has proposed increasing the current enrollment cap at universities offering medical degrees from the current 3,058 with the addition of 2,000 more slots to reverse a shortage of doctors. The cap has been unchanged since 2006.

The looming doctors’ walkout comes as Yoon’s conservative People Power Party is looking to overtake the progressive Democratic Party in elections in April for all the seats in parliament. The public seems to be siding with the government in the matter and a tough stance by Yoon could help build support among voters who have grown frustrated with long waiting times to see a physician.

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A weekly tracking poll released by Gallup Korea on Friday showed 76% of respondents had positive views of the government’s plan while only 16% see it as negative. Yoon’s approval rating also rebounded to 33% from a nine-month low of 29% two weeks ago as he has stood his ground on the medical school issue and tried to cool criticism of whether his wife may have inappropriately received a designer bag.

Yoon has a powerful cudgel in the fight, with the government in theory being able to use the Medical Services Act to revoke the licenses of doctors over prolonged labor actions that threaten the nation’s health care system. Yoon is looking to increase the number of doctors by around 15,000 by 2035.

Vice Health Minister Park Minsoo said Friday the ministry ordered 221 training hospitals to ban mass leave and maintain essential medical personnel. A doctor who doesn’t return to work could face up to three years in prison under relevant laws, Park warned.

South Korea has one of the lowest ratios of doctors to population in the developed world, according to data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which shows 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people. Greece has the most in the group at 6.3 doctors per 1,000 people, the data showed.

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The Korea Medical Association, which represents about 15,000 doctors including the trainees, will decide Saturday whether to stage a strike. The group contends increasing the number of people with medical degrees would not remedy the fundamental problems with the system. These include having a disproportionate number of doctors in urban areas and a lack of specialists in disciplines seen as lower paying.

But South Korean doctors are also some of the best paid in the developed world with the ratio of their renumeration to the average pay being the highest among all OECD countries, data from the group showed.

This is not the first time the South Korean government attempted to increase the medical school quota. In 2020, the government bowed to pressure when 80% of trainee doctors staged a strike for about a month amid the outbreak of Covid-19. 

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