The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Medical reform

Increase in medical student quota will have ripple effects on education, industry

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 6, 2024 - 05:30

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The government unveiled a set of measures on Sunday to revamp the national health insurance system to raise the compensation for general surgeons, cardiothoracic surgeons, emergency physicians, pediatricians and obstetricians in a bid to ease the shortage of doctors in those lifesaving fields.

As the dearth of physicians has reached deadly levels in provincial regions, the Ministry of Health and Welfare also plans to announce this week a major increase of the annual medical school admission quota, by between 1,000 and 2,000 persons. The combined student intake at medical schools nationwide has remained unchanged at 3,058 for the past 18 years since 2006.

The number of interns and residents in pediatrics plummeted from 840 in 2014 to 304 last year, according to ministry data released by a lawmaker of the Democratic Party of Korea last week. General surgery marked the second sharpest decline in the number of interns and residents, from 599 to 423 in the same period.

The ministry said last year it would offer a monthly allowance of 1 million won ($750) for interns, residents and fellows in pediatrics starting this year, but only 26 percent of the quota for first-year residents in pediatrics for the first half of 2024 was met. In areas outside Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province, only 11.8 percent of the quota was met.

Small children and their parents often have to wait for hours to see a pediatrician. There is even a paid app to give out queue numbers each morning for walk-in clinics so patients can shorten the waiting time at the clinic. Without using the app, patients often cannot see a pediatrician at all.

If the Yoon Suk Yeol administration can bring about a drastic increase in the medical student quota despite strong opposition from doctors associations, it would mark a momentous step in the right direction that will have a domino effect across education and even the industrial landscape.

The ministry estimates that South Korea will face a shortfall of 15,000 physicians by 2035 if no changes are made to the medical student quota. The envisioned increase of doctors over the next 10 years, based on this estimate, will reduce the number of patients per doctor, and therefore would generally make the practice of medicine less lucrative. This will likely mitigate the mad rush of the nation’s smartest children to medical schools in the long run, and motivate more of them to pursue other areas of science and technology that are in dire need of talent.

The abnormal situation in which the nation’s top 20 university departments with the highest cutoff points for admission are uniformly those of medicine can finally begin to dissipate. More Koreans will come to realize that a profession itself doesn’t guarantee anything, especially in this age of hyperuncertainty. As this awareness spreads, high school students will move toward greater diversity in choosing what they want to do after graduation, and this could in turn reduce the need for ridiculously perplexing problems on the state-administered college entrance exam.

As the government has pledged to spend more than 10 trillion won over the next five years to resuscitate areas of “essential medical care” and draw more doctors to provincial regions, the various physicians’ associations now have less room to justify arguing against the quota increase itself, though they need to sort out smaller issues with the government.

Having made clear that the government will seek legislation to reduce the legal risks from medical accidents for medical staff in his eighth public debate session at Seoul National University Bundang Hospital last week, Yoon attended another debate on Monday at an elementary school in Hanam, Gyeonggi Province.

The Education Ministry said it would expand after-school care for first graders to 2,000 schools next month; to all elementary schools nationwide -- about 6,000 -- in the second half of this year; to first and second graders next year; and to all elementary schoolchildren by 2026.

This is another necessary move in a country that has now long languished with the world's lowest birth rate. South Korea's state budget last year amounted to 638.7 trillion won.