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[News Focus] Seoul reviewing second chance for medical students to sit licensing exam

Officials change stance with shortage of front-line medical workers looming

People wait in a long line Saturday for diagnostic checks at a COVID-19 center in Jongno-gu, central Seoul. The government is faced with potential shortage of medical workers with the number of new daily cases sharply rising under the third coronavirus wave. (Yonhap)
People wait in a long line Saturday for diagnostic checks at a COVID-19 center in Jongno-gu, central Seoul. The government is faced with potential shortage of medical workers with the number of new daily cases sharply rising under the third coronavirus wave. (Yonhap)
The government is considering allowing fourth-year medical students another chance to take the state medical licensing exam, as the country anticipates a shortage of medical personnel next year.

Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun said in a radio interview Sunday that “there is a possibility” that medical students who boycotted the licensing exam this year could be given the opportunity to take the state-run test soon.

“We were really cautious in concern of public opinion, but the government will soon put together a measure in light of a number of realistic situations,” Chung said.

While the government could not resolve whether it would be fair to provide the second chance, the prime minister said he noticed some change in general public opinion that favors providing relief to medical students.

Authorities are focused on securing more medical professionals as the country undergoes its greatest, most threatening wave of the coronavirus thus far. Chung’s radio interview hints at a backpedaling in the government, which had initially stated that no second chances would be given to exam boycotters this year.

“The recent threatening spread of COVID-19 this winter is very likely to continue throughout next year,” said Ministry of Health and Welfare press officer Son Young-rae in a briefing Sunday.

“A shortage of medical human resources is a problem surfacing in this situation, and we are preparing to come up with a solution after a comprehensive review.”

Korea is forecast to fall short of 2,700 doctors next year after 86 percent of fourth-year medical students boycotted taking this year’s state-run medical licensing exam in September in protest of the government’s medical reform plan proposed to supply more doctors in rural areas.

For this year’s state-run exam, only 14 percent of 3,172 qualified students actually registered to take the test that started in September.

Thousands of young doctors and medical students staged walkouts and held rallies to oppose the plan to increase admission quotas at medical schools to recruit 4,000 more doctors by 2032 and deploy three-quarters of them to rural areas for at least 10 full years.

Doctors argued that no such measure is necessary, as Korea has the best health care access among Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development member states and the country’s doctor-to-patient ratio is set to surpass the OECD average by 2028.

The government later backed down and promised to suspend the plan.

Yet conflict continued between the medical sector and the government over whether to give fourth-year medical students a second chance to take the state medical licensing exam.

Doctors’ representatives asked that the fourth-year students be given a second chance to take the exam, saying hospitals could suffer major manpower shortages next year with or without the COVID-19 pandemic.

Experts warned of major losses at small hospitals in nonmetropolitan areas and significant delays in providing essential care for patients. The medical system itself could also become overburdened, resulting in an unprecedented crisis, they forecast.

The government, however, remained firm, citing negative public consensus, stating that no additional exams would be provided to test-takers who boycotted the exam voluntarily.

The students publicly voiced that they would return to school and take the exam after the government suspended the plan, but the government did not engage in negotiation, saying public opinion was overwhelmingly negative toward giving an extra chance to those who withdrew their applications.

The government was planning to fill in the gaps with resident trainee doctors and specialized nurses. Officials were also planning to recruit doctors with specialty licenses as nighttime doctors at hospitals for hourly wages.

But as the coronavirus pandemic gains force and is expected to stay strong in the coming months, the government now appears to be backing down.

The Korea Medical Association welcomed the government’s change of heart, saying authorities should seek to immediately run a new round of the licensing exam to have more doctors on board next year.

The association is the country’s largest group of doctors and represents more than 130,000 members. The KMA spearheaded doctors’ and medical students’ protests of medical reform plans that resulted in the state exam boycott.

“It is difficult to discuss in detail, because what the prime minister mentioned does not have any specific decision or method yet,” said KMA spokesperson Kim Dae-ha in an interview Monday.

“But much time would be required to have students take the exam, so if the government has the urge to keep its initiative going, officials need to promptly respond and quickly come up with solutions.”

If the government runs the written test as scheduled in January and administers another run of the practical test for students who missed the one in September before the end of March next year, new doctors could be dispatched as hospital interns by May, the association has suggested.

By Ko Jun-tae (ko.juntae@heraldcorp.com)
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