The Korea Herald


Do Korean doctors make too much money?

Some say doctors oppose med school quota hike to protect their turf, while others believe they deserve fair compensation for their vital services

By Park Jun-hee

Published : May 15, 2024 - 15:34

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Medical workers walk in a hallway at a general hospital in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) Medical workers walk in a hallway at a general hospital in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

Recent government data revealing that South Korean doctors -- except junior doctors -- now rake in an annual salary of 301 million won ($220,029), nearly five times higher than the country’s average annual salary of 42.14 million won, has rekindled the debate on whether doctors are making too much.

Some critics believe high income is the reason why doctors refuse to agree to the government’s plan to increase the student quota for medical schools here, out of fear that the value and pricing of their services could fall. But others claim that doctors deserve to earn higher than the average, given the years of study they must do and the services they offer to patients.

“Doctors are paid for how much they work, especially providing life-saving care and treatment (to patients). On a personal note, I don’t know why doctors earning six digits ruffles feathers,” Park, a self-employed physician who runs an internal medicine clinic in Sangam-dong, western Seoul, told The Korea Herald on Wednesday.

The data by the National Health Insurance Service on the salary trends of physicians working at medical institutions, including tertiary general hospitals and private clinics, showed Wednesday that the average salary of doctors -- excluding junior doctors -- stood at 301 million won as of the end of 2022. The figure is up 44.7 percent from the corresponding figure of 208 million in 2016.

None of this data included intern and resident doctors’ annual salaries in its calculations.

Park’s remarks are in line with the Health Ministry’s recent claims that the primary reason doctors are “well paid” is the relative scarcity of medical professionals at a time when the demand for health care services is high.

The ministry also said that physicians have noticed a “significant increase” in their earnings over the years due to the shortage of doctors, which led to a rise in the cost of labor.

The salary for doctors providing severe and emergency medical care services at large hospitals was 201 million won, up 4.1 percent from 158 million won in 2016. During the same period, doctors working in medical clinics earned 345 million won, an 8.3 percent increase from 214 million won, according to the data.

Notably, physicians who owned private practices earned the most, with lucrative specialties bringing in considerably more. Private eye doctors earned 615 million won on average, putting them at the top of the heap among their peers. Self-employed orthopedic doctors made 471 million won, while otolaryngologists, health care specialists who treat conditions affecting one’s ears, nose and throat, earned 413 million. Doctors in anesthesiology and pain medicine made around 391 million won.

In addition, data released by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in July last year also showed that Korean physicians earned the most among the 28 member countries that provided the statistics. The US didn’t provide relevant data for that study.