Around 16,000, or four-fifths, of trainee doctors across South Korea took to the streets on Friday in opposition to the government’s plan to expand medical school admissions. Patients experienced inconveniences at medical centers on Friday as it took long for them to see a doctor, some of who had no option but to return home. Given that general practitioners centered around the Korean Medical Association plan to go on a strike next Friday, it will only add up to burden on those on the forefront at hospitals who have already been exhausted amid the ongoing COVID-19 outbreak. It is the first ever collective strike by doctors in South Korea in 20 years since the separation of drug prescribing and dispensing was put in place in 2000.
As the South Korean government announced on July 23 to expand admissions at medical schools starting from the school year 2022 to nurture 4,000 more doctors over the next decade, the new blueprint has been met with strong criticism and opposition from the medical sector. Doctors argue that the plan will lead to a glut of medical professionals on the market and deteriorate their vocational qualifications. However, their strong opposing view of the plan does not sound persuasive and justifiable, considering that the per-capita number of doctors in South Korea is way smaller than the OECD average of 3.5. As of last year, for example, North Gyeongsang Province and South Chungcheong Province only had 1.38 and 1.5 doctors per capita, respectively, although Seoul recorded 3.12. Added to this, there is a significant gap in the number of medical staff by specialties. If specialists in surgery and other crucial departments are blindly opposed to the idea of expanding medical admissions, they will find it hard to win public support and agreement. Furthermore, if they take public health hostage at a time of such difficulty, they will only lose cause and come across as self-interest seekers.
Nevertheless, it should be pointed out that there is room for improvement in how the South Korean government communicates before doctors are to blame for their collectivism. The plan to increase quotas for medical schools was not fully discussed with those involved such as doctors and experts, but announced without notice. Doctors lament that there has not been any public hearing on the issue beforehand. It is understandable that doctors are greatly disappointed by the government’s lack of communication. It was not until they went on a strike that the government reached out for dialogue and discussion. This does not help the government convince doctors of its new plan in any way.
Some issues such as on the health care delivery system and health insurance are too daunting to solve even if the government and the medical field alike rack their brains. The telemedicine system, which has been delayed due to doctors’ strong opposition, is only the latest in a long line of urgent issues to handle. Even if it takes so long, not only the government but also doctors should give priority to what is the best for public health and find a reasonably practical solution.