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[Editorial] Doctors' self-isolation

Only way for trainee doctors to regain public trust is to return to work now

By Korea Herald

Published : May 20, 2024 - 05:30

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The Seoul High Court on Thursday rejected a request from trainee doctors, medical professors and medical students to stop the government from increasing the medical school enrollment by 2,000 starting next year from the current cap of 3,058.

While the planned increase could infringe on medical students’ right to learn, suspending it could have a severe impact on the public welfare promoted by the medical reform, the court said in its ruling. The court judged that the latter was more important.

Noting that the Constitution guarantees the autonomy of universities and that the universities can best identify issues related to medical students’ learning environment, the court said the government needs to respect the views of the universities when deciding the student quota after 2025.

Hence, the government has accepted university presidents’ proposal to adjust the size of the quota increase, the court acknowledged. As a result, a total of about 1,500 places are expected to be added at medical schools nationwide for the next school year.

Should the medical community present a “unified, reasonable and scientific” plan, the government will always be ready to discuss with flexibility on the number of places, Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said in a televised briefing Thursday following the court's decision.

The medical community, however, doesn't appear interested in coming up with any unified proposal. They are still demanding the government to scrap the increase itself.

The doctors should know by now that they can’t stop the increase by continuing with the strike. What they can and should do is discuss at the presidential special committee for medical reform what would be a “reasonable” size of medical school student quota and how to draw more doctors to areas of essential healthcare and provincial regions.

A medical professors’ group said they will hold a meeting this week to discuss their next steps such as adjusting hospital operation schedules, as the junior doctors who walked off the job three months ago are unlikely to return anytime soon.

If the trainee doctors do not return to their jobs by May 20, which is three months since they tendered their resignations and walked off, they will have to take the test to earn the license as medical specialists a year later than their previous schedule. Those with a gap of three months or more during the residency training have to wait another year before they can sit for the annual exam, according to the rules.

While stressing that the trainee doctors facing the exam must return by Monday, the government has asked them to explain if they have inevitable reasons to take a leave of absence or sick leave, meaning that if they do, the number of days that can be covered as leaves will count as their training period.

The government has also vowed to cut trainee doctors’ working hours and provide financial support so that they can focus on their training and education.

The medical community must not forget that most South Koreans support the increase in medical school enrollment. According to a poll conducted on May 14 and 15, some 72.4 percent of the respondents said they believe the number of places should be increased by 2,000. Some 78.7 percent said they could not relate to the collective actions taken by medical professors.

By merely complaining and denouncing the government without making any effort to come up with an alternative at the cost of severe delays in treatments for patients and extreme fatigue of the remaining medical staff over the past three months, the striking doctors have greatly disappointed and angered the public. The only way for them to regain public trust is by doing their jobs as doctors.