The Korea Herald


Past successes behind doctors' confidence

Korea has history of government, doctors locking horns in past, all of which ended with latter's victory

By Lee Jaeeun

Published : Feb. 21, 2024 - 14:46

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Representatives of trainee doctors, who resigned collectively in protest over a hike in medical school enrollment quotas, gather at the Korea Medical Association building in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) Representatives of trainee doctors, who resigned collectively in protest over a hike in medical school enrollment quotas, gather at the Korea Medical Association building in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Despite the public's negative response and the government's stern warning against doctors leaving hospitals in protest of a drastic medical school quota expansion that would add 2,000 new spots per year, Korean doctors have remained adamant, expressing confidence that they would not back down until the plan is withdrawn.

Among the doctors remaining steadfast over the government's threats of legal action is Noh Hwan-kyu, the former chair of the Korea Medical Association, an interest group of licensed doctors. His remark posted on Facebook went viral last week as he said that the government cannot win against the doctors. He pointed out that the record has shown that patients who died in critical condition during a strike 24 years ago had been abandoned for days.

The confidence appears to be deeply rooted in a track record of past successes, according to observers and insiders. Over the past two decades, Korean doctors have undertaken a series of collective actions, and the government backed off in every confrontation.

In 2000, doctors went on strike due to a health reform prohibiting them from selling medicine, giving authorization to pharmacists instead. In 2014, doctors went on strike again in protest of a telemedicine bill proposal. The last collective action was in 2020 when the previous government tried to raise the number of medical school seats by 400 people per year from 2022.

Each of these strikes ended in victory for doctors.

Although pharmaceutical reform for the separation of drug prescribing and dispensing was finally introduced in 2000, the medical school student quota was reduced by 10 percent on doctors' demands, and the criteria for revoking a doctor's license was also relaxed.

Afterward, a doctor's license could be revoked only when he or she committed a medical-related crime, allowing doctors who commit serious crimes such as murder and sexual assault to keep their licenses. Even if a doctor's license is revoked for a work-related offense, he or she can be reinstated after a certain period.

The strikes in 2014 and 2020 also ended with the government withdrawing the relevant plan due to escalating public concern over medical shortages.

“Since 2000, doctors have repeatedly defeated government policies that would be detrimental to doctors through strikes every time. That’s why doctors think they can bring the government to its knees with the strike this time, too,” professor Kim Yoon of the Seoul National University College of Medicine told YTN Radio.

Jeong Young-in, professor emeritus at the Pusan National University School of Medicine, also said that doctors deeply believe in their negotiation power that puts their interests over public health.

"Through a series of collective actions, doctors realized the power of the 'physician collective.' This has become their habit. But doctors who have left the bedside of their patients cannot get the support of the people."

The Health Ministry said Wednesday, in response to the doctors' collective action, a total of 6,112 doctors had been ordered back to work, but none have returned so far.

Whether doctors will emerge victorious this time, however, remains in question, as the public appears to not be on their side.

About 76 percent of Koreans back the plan for more medical students, a Gallup Korea poll showed last week, amid concerns about an acute shortage of doctors in pediatrics, emergency units and clinics outside Greater Seoul, which includes Incheon and Gyeonggi Province.

The number of doctors in South Korea relative to the size of the population is among the lowest in the developed world, according to health authorities.

The government referred to the 2021 Organization for Economic Cooperation Health Statistics report, in which Korea recorded 2.6 active clinicians per 1,000 people, far lower than Austria, Norway and Germany with 5.4, 5.2 and 4.5 clinicians per 1,000 individuals, respectively.

"The public is outraged by the deep-rooted privilege and arrogance of doctors who try to lord it over the people and the law, regardless of patient suffering," according to a local civic group, Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice.

"Their collective egoism is getting worse. The government should establish the principle of 'take away their license' if necessary so that we can cure the chronic disease of the Korean doctors' group who puts people's lives at risk."