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Professors tender resignations despite Seoul’s offer of dialogue

Doctors remain steadfast, demand Seoul scrap med school quota hike

March 25, 2024 - 15:34 By Park Jun-hee
Medical professors at Yonsei University hold signs that read, “(We) want to return to patients (left)” and that the “court should stop carrying out improper administration initiatives” in protest against the government’s expansion plan, Monday. (Park Jun-hee/The Korea Herald)

Medical professors on Monday said they would proceed with their plan of tendering their resignations, a day after the ruling party chief offered to open a dialogue between the government and the medical community.

Announcing the plan, the Medical Professors Association of Korea said the government’s unilateral decision to raise the admission quota and allocate new student seats led to the resignations.

“The discussions regarding the quota are scientific, so I knew I wouldn’t be able to delve deeply into the topic with (Han Dong-hoon) and also because it’s the government’s policy,” said Kim Chang-soo, a preventative medicine and public health professor at Yonsei University who heads the association, during a press briefing held at the Yonsei Medical Center in Seoul.

“Our position remains unchanged. (Medical professors) are willing to engage in talks with the government only if it scraps the planned hike,” he noted.

Kim also said medical professors are “quitting in droves,” saying he respects and supports their decisions.

“The emergency committee of professors at each medical school has decided to submit their resignations starting today. As far as I know, most of the medical professors (at 40 medical schools) have decided to resign,” Kim told reporters.

“Increasing the medical school enrollment quota will not only ruin the quality of medical education but also (lead to the) collapse of our country’s high-quality medical system,” Kim said.

The government, however, described the move as a show of the “medical circle’s will to engage in talks with the government,” vowing to hold talks with the medical community as soon as possible. The government also said that relevant ministries have begun working-level preparations.

“Now is the time (for medical professors) to join in talks (with the government) to create a better health care system,” Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong was quoted as saying during a government response meeting.

The talks do not necessarily mean “discussing the expansion plan,” according to a senior ministry official, who added that negotiating the 2,000 additional seats will not take place.

The medical professors’ remarks come a day after President Yoon Suk Yeol called for “flexible measures” over the government’s move to suspend the licenses of trainee doctors who refused to comply with return-to-work orders. He also ordered Prime Minister Han Duck-soo to come up with ways to engage in “constructive negotiations” with the medical community.

On Monday during a weekly meeting, Yoon instructed Prime Minister Han to enhance communication with various sectors of society, including the medical community, regarding health care reform, according to his spokesperson, Kim Soo-kyung.

Kim Chang-soo, a preventative medicine and public health professor at Yonsei University who heads the Medical Professors Association of Korea, speaks during a press briefing held at the Yonsei Medical Center in Seoul, Monday. (Yonhap)

Despite the government’s attempt to seek breakthroughs with doctors, medical professors at Korea University submitted their resignation letters, demanding the government stop piling pressure on trainee doctors and students. They also lambasted the government for creating the health care crisis, claiming that the policies were driven by insufficient evidence and distorted statistics.

Some 93 professors out of 233 at Soonchunhyang University Hospital Cheonan have already submitted their resignations as of Monday morning, according to reports citing health and education authorities.

Following their peers, the emergency committee comprising professors at Chungnam National University issued a statement that medical professors had decided to hand in their resignations voluntarily, urging the government to scrap the expansion plan.

The emergency response committee comprising medical professors from 19 schools also issued a statement saying that they would leave their profession.

“(We) feel a great sense of responsibility for not being able to prevent the crisis. The government should withdraw from its expansion plan so that medical students, trainee doctors and medical professors can return to their positions,” the statement read.

In addition, some 433 medical professors out of 767 at Ulsan University, who double as physicians at Asan Medical Center, Ulsan University Hospital and GangNeung Asan Hospital, said that they would leave their jobs as health care providers. Their peers at Chonnam National University and Chosun University followed suit.

The emergency body of professors at Seoul National University Hospital and Seoul National University’s College of Medicine was also set to hold a meeting later in the day on whether to remain in their positions.

In addition, Joo Soo-ho, the head of the emergency committee’s public relations council of the Korean Medical Association, said holding any dialogue with the government would be “unnecessary.”

“The government is putting on a show by offering talks (to doctors), but on the other hand, one of the KMA’s emergency committee members was questioned (again) yesterday as a witness. There’s no need for talks with a government that displays two-faced behavior,” Joo told reporters as he appeared before police for questioning over his alleged involvement in instigating the walkout of junior doctors.

Observers say medical professors’ resignations lack valid grounds, noting that their claim of protecting their students from getting their licenses suspended and repeating a grade are insufficient reasons to leave their profession.

“There is no justification for medical professors’ resignations. They took advantage of overworked and underpaid trainee doctors, and now (medical professors) say they are at risk of fatigue,” Jeong Hyoung-sun, a professor of health administration at Yonsei University, told The Korea Herald.

Lee Ju-yul, a professor at the Department of Health Administration at Namseoul University, noted that medical professors who double as physicians at hospitals should not prioritize their younger colleagues’ grievances before patient care.

“If (medical professors) leave, an unprecedented medical crisis will hit the health care sector. It’s a very worrying situation unless they decide to retract their decision,” Lee said.