South Korea trainee doctors walk out in protest against reforms

Work stoppage follows mass resignations and caused major delays to surgical procedures and treatment.

Park Dan (C), head of the Korea Intern Resident Association, speaks at an emergency meeting with trainee doctors at the Korean Medical Association building on February 20, 2024.
Park Dan, centre, head of the Korea Interns and Residents Association, speaks at an emergency meeting with trainee doctors at the Korean Medical Association, Seoul, South Korea, on February 20, 2024 [Jung Yeon-je/AFP]

More than 1,600 trainee doctors at some of South Korea’s major hospitals have stopped work in protest against a government plan to boost admissions into medical schools.

The walkout on Tuesday, in defiance of government orders to stay at work, followed the previous day’s mass resignation of about 6,500 of the 13,000 doctors and interns at large hospitals, causing considerable delays to surgical procedures and treatment.

The government wants to boost medical school admissions by 2,000 from the 2025 academic year, against a current annual figure of about 3,000, and eventually add 10,000 more by 2035.

South Korea has one of the lowest doctor-to-population ratios among developed countries. President Yoon Suk-yeol said the government would not back down over the “necessary” reforms, which he described as an essential measure to prepare for caring for the country’s fast-ageing population.

But doctors have voiced fierce opposition to the plan to sharply raise medical school admissions, claiming it would hurt the quality of service. Proponents of the plan say doctors are mainly concerned the reforms could erode their salaries and social status.

Reporting from the capital Seoul, Al Jazeera’s Eunice Kim said trainees, who played an “outsized role in the operation of hospitals”, were taking collective action because they believed their input had been ignored.

The Korean Medical Association, she said, had “accused the government of populist policies ahead of April legislative elections”.

“They say the change would increase the foot traffic into hospitals and have a negative impact on the health insurance system.”

Large hospitals announced they were altering surgery schedules and patient appointments. “We will do our best to prevent seriously ill patients from being unable to receive treatment,” Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said on Tuesday.

South Korean law limits the ability of medical staff to strike. Police have warned of arrests for instigators of the work stoppages.

Doctors say the government’s threats of legal action are akin to a “witch hunt”.

Doctor shortages

South Korea’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development.

The government plan is popular among the public. About 76 percent of South Koreans support moves to increase medical students, a Gallup Korea poll showed last week, amid concerns about an acute shortage of doctors for paediatrics, emergency units and clinics outside the greater Seoul area.

But doctors and medical student groups say there are already sufficient physicians and an increase in numbers could lead to unnecessary medical procedures and undermine the finances of the national health insurance plan.

The Korea Association of Medical Colleges has called for a significantly lower admissions increase of 11 percent.

Monday’s resignations were not accepted. But some 1,630 medical staff had left by the end of Monday, according to the health ministry.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, who had pleaded with doctors not to take people’s lives and health hostage, ordered emergency measures such as the use of telemedicine, more operations at public hospitals and the opening up of military clinics.

Source: Al Jazeera and news agencies