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Yoon refuses to bend to doctors' protest

Seoul confirms W128.5b scheme to address health system in distress

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : March 6, 2024 - 18:22

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President Yoon Suk Yeol presides over a meeting of the Pan-governmental Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Sejong City on Wednesday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol presides over a meeting of the Pan-governmental Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters in Sejong City on Wednesday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday refused to concede to some 9,000 trainee doctors' walkout, defining their collective action as "illegal" and insisting it must be met with stern actions guided by law and principle.

Yoon denied the accusations that the government's measures against defiant doctors, such as its decision to suspend the medical licenses of some 7,000 trainees, were meant to suppress doctors' freedom and rights.

Instead, these should be construed as actions "to meet the nation's obligations under the Constitution and to keep citizens' right to life unperturbed," Yoon said, at a Cabinet meeting Yoon presided over at the Government Complex Sejong in the de facto administrative capital.

The remarks came as the trainee doctors' massive walkout in protest against the government's medical school enrollment quota has entered its third week.

Yoon said the government has greenlit a plan to allocate 128.5 billion won ($96.29 million) to address the growing distress in the medical infrastructure, which is suffering staffing shortages, by using the state budget reserves.

The government spending is meant to ease the medical staff shortage that comes from trainee doctors' departures and to reward the medical staff for their dedication in the tough work environment.

Yoon also remained adamant about his administration's pursuit of increasing the medical school enrollment quota by at least 2,000, as he presided over a meeting of the Pan-governmental Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meeting in Sejong later on Wednesday. It was the 10th government emergency meeting to deal with the fallout from medical staff's collective actions.

The "bizarre" setting prompted large hospitals to have "excessively relied on young trainee doctors' sacrifices," Yoon said.

Over half of trainee doctors in Korea work over 80 hours a week, although Korea legislated to cap an 80-hour workweek, according to the estimate by the trainee doctors' association as of 2022.

Also, trainee doctors accounted for nearly 40 percent of medical staff in five of the largest teaching hospitals in South Korea, -- namely Seoul National University Hospital, Severance Hospital, Samsung Medical Center, Seoul Asan Medical Center, and Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital.

"The chaos in the medical field is ironically proof that we are suffering from a lack of doctors," Yoon said. "Trainee doctors' exoduses triggered citizens' fear and anxiety, and a nationwide medical emergency is now in place. How abnormal is this?"

Yoon hinted at increasing the state reimbursement for large hospitals if they send patients with light symptoms to smaller hospitals, so that the large hospitals could focus more on patients with severe conditions.

To support his argument of the enrollment quota hike proposal, Yoon brought up the estimate that a South Korean teaching hospital admitted 77 students on average, which equals about half of that of the United States and a third compared with that of Germany and the United Kingdom.

The faculty shortage is unlikely, Yoon also said, given that a faculty member at a teaching hospital handles 1.6 students on average -- much smaller than the maximum legal threshold of 8.

"Over the past three decades, efforts to improve the quality of the medical service have been overlooked," Yoon said.

On Tuesday, 40 medical schools across the country requested the enrollment quota increase by 3,401 beginning in 2025, higher than the government's initial guideline of 2,000 threshold that sparked the protest, according to the government.

Meanwhile, doctors are facing legal consequences.

On Wednesday, Joo Soo-ho, head of the Korean Medical Association's emergency committee public relations council, was interrogated by the police in Seoul. Joo denied that he was the mastermind behind trainee doctors' resignation en masse, calling them "the new generation who do not follow what their predecessors tell them to do."