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South Korea doctors walk off job over medical school slots

South Korea doctors walk off job over medical school slots
A doctor holds a stethoscope on September 5, 2012. (Photo: Adam Berry/Getty Images)

More than 1,600 South Korean trainee doctors walked off the job on Tuesday to protest against a government plan to drastically increase spots at medical schools aimed at reversing a shortage of physicians.

About 6,415 trainee doctors at around 100 hospitals have submitted resignation letters, the Ministry of Health and Welfare said, and it has ordered more than 700 trainee doctors to return to work. The full extent of the walkout is not yet known but it has caused some hospitals to delay or postpone surgeries. There are around 13,000 trainee doctors in the country, according to the ministry, which has not accepted the resignation letters. 

President Yoon Suk Yeol’s government plans to increase the number of slots at medical schools from next year by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a shortage of doctors, which ranks among the worst among developed countries. It says the move will add medical professionals to more parts of the country and in more fields, which will be needed as the country is facing a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest ageing populations.

Polling shows that about 75% of the public supports the move that could help reduce waiting times and increase access to health care. South Korean doctors also rank as some of the best paid in the world and could see their earning power drop if there are more doctors to see patients.

Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries showed the annual average gross income of self-employed specialists was 6.8 times more than that of the average worker in South Korea as of 2021, which is the widest gap among OECD member countries.

The doctors said the move to increase spots at medical schools would not address fundamental problems such as difficult working conditions, a lack of specialists in fields seen as lower paying and a concentration of doctors in urban areas.

The biggest group of trainee doctors are some 2,700 at five major general hospitals, including Seoul National University Hospital, who previously said they planned to walk off the job on Tuesday. They play key roles in emergency care and represent about a fifth of all the trainee doctors in the country. 

Four of the five major hospital groups where the trainee doctors threatened to walk off the job said they were still in the process of counting workers scheduled for duty. The Catholic University hospital group, officially known as Seoul St. Mary’s Hospital, said a walk out has happened but would not give numbers on doctors who did not report.

The government has called on the trainee doctors to report to work and has a powerful weapon in the fight, because it could use the Medical Services Act to revoke the licences of doctors over prolonged labour actions that threaten the health-care system. 

The government is also looking at revoking the medical licence of two members of the Korean Medical Association, which represents about 13,000 doctors, on suspicion of leading the collective action, Yonhap said.

Yoon, who has been driving the plan to increase the number of doctors, has seen a boost in his support rate. This could help his conservative People Power Party as it tries to take control of parliament in April elections.

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