The Korea Herald


[Editorial] Lethal collision course

Doctors’ threats to take collective action over quota hike put patients at risk

By Korea Herald

Published : Feb. 19, 2024 - 05:30

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The conflict between the Yoon Suk Yeol administration and doctors over the plan to increase the medical school enrollment quota is expected to intensify Monday as doctors are scheduled to take collection action the next day.

An escalation in the clash came after the Ministry of Health and Welfare announced that it would increase the medical school freshmen quota by 2,000 next year -- a drastic increase from the current 3,058 seats -- as part of efforts to resolve chronic shortages of doctors in rural areas and essential health care fields.

The Korea Medical Association, a major lobby group for doctors, strongly protested the government’s decision, warning of a massive strike and other actions in response. In protest of the government’s plan, trainee doctors of five major general hospitals in Seoul said they would tender letters of resignation on Monday and take off work the following day.

In a show of solidarity with the protesting doctors, students from 35 out of 40 medical schools said they would file leave of absence requests to their respective universities on Tuesday.

But the government remains firm in its stance, saying that the quota increase is “irreversible” and it will take stern action should doctors engage in a strike.

Without a compromise, the planned strike by doctors is likely to affect the schedule of many urgent operations and treatment for patients in critical condition. Major hospitals already announced their surgery schedules could be adjusted because of the doctors’ protest.

The collective action of trainee doctors, if implemented, is widely feared to spark a cascade of serious problems as patients will seek treatment and surgeries elsewhere, possibly overcrowding small and midsized hospitals, many of which are already struggling with a shortage of doctors in essential fields.

The possible spread of confusion, inconvenience and objections among doctors, medical students and patients is the government's chief concern. The chaos at hospitals, if prolonged, could work as a big negative factor for the government and the ruling People Power Party ahead of the parliamentary election in April.

But there seems to be no sign of compromise, at least on the part of the government. Unlike similar clashes involving doctors in the past where the government eventually caved in over the increase in the quota of medical students, the Yoon administration maintains its initial position, vowing to take strict measures against any illegal acts over the medical student quota.

In that regard, the health authorities conducted on-site checks at major hospitals and ordered trainee doctors to submit their daily work logs in a bid to block them from returning to the hospital and then quickly rejoining a strike.

South Korean people are familiar with how the fallout over the increase in medical students plays out. In July 2020, the previous Moon Jae-in administration attempted to increase the enrollment quota by 4,000 over a 10-year period, only to be confronted with large-scale strikes by doctors in August at a time when the country was in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic. In September of that year, the government and doctors agreed to discuss the quota increase at a later date.

The success of the Yoon administration’s attempt to increase the quota, therefore, depends on whether it can withstand tough opposition from doctors, whose walk-offs can immediately disrupt medical services across the nation.

The latest public polls show that a majority of respondents have a positive view of the medical school quota increase, which is a factor that encourages the government to take strong measures. However, the government must try to end the confrontation with doctors as early as possible considering that patients and their families will go through immense pain and trouble if strikes break out.