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President Yoon rules out compromise with doctors over medical school quota
2024-03-01
President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday ruled out changing course on the government's plan to expand the country's medical school admissions quota amid a ballooning walkout by trainee doctors.
 
Speaking at an afternoon conference on regional cooperation at the Blue House, the president said the medical reform plan “cannot be the subject of negotiation or compromise,” pushing back on calls for the government to reach an agreement with striking doctors to forestall a protracted healthcare crisis.
 
“It is impossible to justify collective action that takes people’s health hostage and threatens their lives and safety,” the president said in reference to over 9,000 intern and resident doctors who have submitted resignations from hospitals across the country and defied the Health Ministry’s return-to-work orders.  
 
On Friday, a patient in her 80s died in Daejeon due to cardiac arrest after seven different hospitals turned her away citing a lack of available staff, while a one-year-old infant with respiratory problems in Changwon, South Gyeongsang had to be transported over three hours to Jinju after being rejected from nearby hospitals.
 
Yoon said the government decided to increase the country’s medical school intake from the current 3,058 to 5,058 by 2025 out of “urgency” to “revitalize” regions out of Seoul and safeguard quality of care across the country.
 
In his comments, Yoon said that the state “would be failing in its constitutional duty” to “protect all medically vulnerable people” if they “fail to receive proper care,” which he warned could become a reality “in the near future.”
 
The government has argued more doctors are needed in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine. 
 
While doctors claim that too many doctors enter lucrative fields such as cosmetic surgery and dermatology at the expense of low-paying, high-risk jobs in essential sectors, critics argue that doctors oppose increased recruitment for fear of higher competition and lower pay.
 
Korea currently has 2.5 doctors per 1,000 people — the second lowest rate in the OECD group of developed nations after Mexico.
 
“Increasing the medical school admissions quota by 2,000 is the bare minimum necessary measure to ensure the state can fulfill its constitutional mandate” of ensuring healthcare, Yoon said.  

The president noted that research conducted by multiple institutions had concluded that the country needs “about 10,000 more doctors to secure an adequate number of doctors in areas with shortages of medical professionals to ensure fair access to health services” to deal with the challenges posed by Korea’s rapidly aging society by 2035, which he noted was growing older at a rate 1.7 times faster than the OECD average.
 
“Even if the quota is increased now, we will only begin to have more doctors ten years later,” Yoon said, arguing that the government’s plan could not afford delays or reductions.
 
For now, the public appears to be siding with the government, with a recent Gallup survey showing that 76 percent of respondents support increasing the medical school quota. 
 
Yoon also thanked doctors and nurses who had stayed on the job amid the trainee doctors’ walkout, vowing the government would “ensure their sacrifice is not in vain by staying the course of medical reform.”
 
The same day, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said trainee doctors would be liable for legal punishment unless they return to work by Thursday, escalating the government’s earlier warnings to thousands of intern and resident doctors who have walked out of hospitals.
 
Cho said junior doctors who return to work by Thursday “will not be held accountable for previous actions” but that the Health Ministry will “act according to the law and principle in response to illegal collective action.”
 
The health minister added that officials will inspect 50 hospitals before the end of the week to assess how many doctors have not returned to work.
 
License suspensions and legal prosecution will be “unavoidable” for those who do not return, according to Cho.
 
The government has the right to revoke the licenses of doctors who have been handed criminal convictions for failing to follow return-to-work orders.
 
Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo told reporters on Tuesday that 8,939 intern and resident doctors have stopped coming to work as of Monday night, with the number who have submitted their resignations reaching 9,909.
 
New patient admissions have fallen by 24 percent since the walkout began last week, while surgeries at general hospitals have dropped 50 percent.
 
Almost 70 percent of the nation’s medical students, or 13,000, have also submitted leaves of absence at medical schools across the country, with students at six medical schools conducting class boycotts on Monday, according to the Education Ministry.
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