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Avert medical crisis

Government, doctors must seek a path to compromise, drop hard-line stances

March 12, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

South Korea continues to suffer medical service disruptions across the nation as nearly 12,000 intern and resident doctors, who play key roles in diverse fields at major hospitals, remain off work over the government’s plan to increase the medical school enrollment quota.

As the confrontation between the government and junior doctors enters its fourth week, local hospitals have been forced to delay or cancel surgeries amid deepening concerns that these medical disruptions could drag on without any breakthrough.

The government on Monday began deploying 158 military and public health doctors to local hospitals over a four-week period to help alleviate the problems related to the shortage of medical staff. Last week, the Health Ministry allowed physician assistant nurses to perform some of the roles of doctors at emergency care units in general and teaching hospitals.

However, such measures are unlikely to resolve the fundamental problem caused by the mass walkout of trainee doctors. As of Friday, 11,994 trainee doctors -- 93 percent of all junior doctors -- at 100 teaching hospitals had walked off in protest of the government’s plan to add 2,000 medical students starting next year.

The possibility that the government and doctors will find a compromise anytime soon remains slim. The main reason is that neither side is willing to adjust their hard-line positions, fueling a fight that puts more patients at unnecessary risk and undermines the overall health care system.

A group of medical professors and specialist doctors also joined the dispute Sunday, calling on the government to respect doctors and stop its threats against trainee doctors in a statement.

The professors and doctors claimed the government’s unilateral policy was hurting the country’s advanced medical care system, saying they sympathized with the junior doctors’ feelings and pledging to support them. They called on the government to seriously consider the problems linked to the hike in the admissions quota and to seek reasonable solutions through talks with the medical community.

The statement, written by 16 medical professors and doctors at major hospitals, drew some 5,000 signatures from doctors across the nation.

The most important task for the government and doctors is to hold negotiations to discuss possible solutions together. The government has to change its hard-line stance. Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said the government will take lenient measures if trainee doctors returned to work before administrative procedures to suspend their licenses are finished, but this has not been enough to convince trainee doctors, as the ministry has sent prior notices of license suspension to some 5,000 junior doctors.

With strong punitive procedures underway, it is unlikely that trainee doctors will be persuaded to talk with the government. The government should not force doctors themselves to come up with a unified new proposal regarding the quota, since this coercive attitude cannot lead to proper discussions.

Health officials have to reconsider the current quota increase’s potential issues and make a logical argument about the relations between the increased number of doctors and its benefits to essential fields, as well as its long-term impact on health services in Korea, which is a super-aging society.

The same level of flexibility is required for the professors and specialist doctors, as well as trainee doctors. Doctors claim the quota increase will undermine the quality of medical education. The lack of facilities and professionals at some medical schools could become a serious problem in terms of education quality, but doctors also admit that there is a strong demand for the quota increase since 40 medical schools nationwide recently applied for a combined 3,401 additional admission seats, far higher than the government’s proposal for 2,000 seats.

Time is fast running out as the medical disruption threatens to do indelible damage to the health care system. To talk about ways to seek comprehensive medical reforms, both sides must first realize that they need to come to the negotiation table.