South Korea plans to set up a state-run medical school that would exempt its students from tuition fees and require graduates to serve 10 years at public medical institutions to meet the demand for health care in remote regions, the Health Ministry said Tuesday.
The ministry has earmarked some 327.8 billion won ($282 million) to establish the school by 2020, offering a six-year degree program for 100 medical students each year. Students who do not fulfill the 10-year duty after graduation must pay back their tuition to the government. The ministry plans to announce a more detailed proposal later this month.
The proposal is based on a bill introduced by ruling Saenuri Party Rep. Lee Jung-hyun in May to establish a state-funded medical school to train professionals who will work in public health in remote regions upon graduation.
The Health Ministry plans to support the bill, which is currently pending at the National Assembly, so it can be approved as soon as possible.
Korea has struggled to fulfill the medical care needs in small, remote regions, with the number of health care workers at clinics in such areas declining from 4,000 in 2012 to 3,793 last year, according to the Health Ministry. Due to the low desire to work in rural areas, most of the doctors are young, inexperienced male professionals who are merely substituting their military duty with medical service.
But as the proportion of female students enrolled in medical schools has increased in recent years, the number of male medical doctors available for the substitute military duty has declined, the ministry explained. Men aged 18-35 must serve for almost two years, while women are exempt from duty.
South Jeolla Province is one of the country’s most vulnerable regions for health care access. It has 138 islands that lack medical facilities, pharmacies or resident health care workers. For residents of such islands, seeing a doctor means having to travel to Mokpo, or wait for the “floating hospital” -- a state-run ship that functions as a medical facility – that visits about five times a year.
“We believe that more doctors are needed to tackle this issue and really improve the health care services in remote regions across the country,” said Hwang Eui-su from the Health Ministry. “We need more doctors who are specialists in the field of public health.”
However, the plan is fiercely opposed by the nation’s largest group of physicians, who claim that the Health Ministry does not understand why doctors do not want to be placed in remote regions in the first place.
“Some of the reasons why medical professionals don’t want to be placed in remote regions include housing, fewer career opportunities and lack of (government) support for quality health care services,” the Korea Medical Association said in a statement.
“Once those problems are solved, we believe more doctors from private medical institutions would volunteer to work in the field of public health. By establishing a separate school, the government is wasting a lot of tax money to avoid solving the actual problems.”
The KMA suggested the Health Ministry work with existing universities to create plans to train some of its matriculated students as future specialists in public health, as the current system already produces a surplus of doctors and is triggering severe competition in the industry.
The KMA has also opposed the government’s push to introduce telemedicine -- the use of information technology through smart devices to remotely provide clinical health care to improve services to isolated regions -- claiming it would only lower the quality of services and jeopardize the operations of small local clinics and regional hospitals.
By Claire Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org