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[Editorial] Strike goes overboard

Medical professors should seek to arbitrate, not exacerbate conflict

March 15, 2024 - 05:31 By Korea Herald

With medical school professors shaving their heads and threatening to resign to “protect” their students and trainee doctors, the doctors’ strike has gone too far.

Earlier this week, the government sent notices to over 5,500 trainee doctors who left work more than three weeks ago and have not complied with the ministry’s order to return to work that their medical licenses will be suspended. Medical students are taking leaves of absence en masse and may be collectively flunked.

Both sides are refusing to budge on the precondition for talks -- the envisioned increase of the medical school admission quota by 2,000. The government insists this is the bare minimum required to keep up with the country’s aging population, while doctors’ groups say they won’t talk unless the government scraps the plan.

The doctors’ groups have accused the government of unilaterally pushing forward with the quota increase without sufficient consultation with the medical community. Second Vice Minister of Health Park Min-soo has said, however, that the ministry has engaged in discussions with doctors for over a year since the ministry initially unveiled the plan in early 2023.

Professors of 19 medical schools organized an emergency committee and said they will decide by Friday whether to resign to “protect” their students from getting flunked en masse. But it appears that the professors are not really talking with their pupils.

A group of professors at Seoul National University’s medical college on Tuesday proposed having “a credible third-party institution overseas” analyze Korea’s health care indicators, and decide in a year's time how many more physicians the country needs based on the analysis. What kind of a credible overseas institution analyzes the supply and demand of physicians in a foreign country?

Both the Korean Intern Resident Association and the Health Ministry rejected the SNU professors’ proposal. The KIRA said they never had any talks with the professors, and a delay is not what they want, and the ministry said the quota increase cannot be put off further.

The SNU professors, nevertheless, said they would resign on March 18 unless the government takes steps for a reasonable solution to the situation by then. Trainee doctors at SNU hospitals began tendering their resignation on Feb. 18, and under Article 660 of the Civil Act, a notice of intention to rescind an employment contract becomes effective after one month has elapsed from the date of receipt of such notice.

Some medical professors also treat patients at hospitals, and some of these professors are likely to stop seeing patients and only teach. As Vice Minister Park put it, “leaving patients to protect students” is a logic the Korean public cannot understand.

Ironically, the absence of trainee doctors at the nation’s Big Five teaching hospitals is sending patients to midsized hospitals, helping normalize the country’s health care delivery system. The strikes brought attention to the Big Five hospitals’ high dependence on interns and residents -- some 46 percent of all doctors at the SNU hospital. As the Big Five -- SNU, Severance, Seoul Asan, Seoul Samsung and Seoul St. Mary’s -- cut the use of operating rooms to half, and focused on critically ill or emergency patients, patients in relatively less severe conditions have turned to midsized hospitals, as they should have in the first place.

Instead of taking extreme measures that the general public finds hard to understand, medical school professors, many of whom have been overworked in the absence of the junior doctors, should try to mediate between the two sides so they can sit down for meaningful talks.