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Will tug-of-war between doctors, government end soon?

Government to resume pangovernmental meetings on doctors’ collective action Friday, while doctors remain unchanged in stance

By Park Jun-hee

Published : April 18, 2024 - 14:58

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Medical personnel walks down the corridor at a university hospital in Seoul on Thursday (Yonhap) Medical personnel walks down the corridor at a university hospital in Seoul on Thursday (Yonhap)

The Korean government on Thursday broke its silence on its medical student quota expansion plan after over a week of maintaining a low profile following the ruling party's major election defeat, stoking hopes that it could possibly end the monthslong tug-of-war with the medical circle.

The government announced plans to resume Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters meetings involving officials from related ministries and Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, as well as to brief reporters again starting Friday, which Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo will most likely lead.

Since April 9, the government has taken a step back by calling off its daily press briefings on doctors’ collective action, as it has remained silent on the quota hike.

Amid the prolonged medical standoff, Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong said earlier in the day at a government response meeting that the government would “push with the medical reform in an unwavering manner.”

“Medical reform is a pivotal task aimed at enhancing essential medical fields and medical services in rural areas and preparing for future health care demands to protect the lives and health of the people,” Cho was quoted as saying, without further elaborating on the expansion plan.

As part of efforts to seek a breakthrough, a special commission on medical reform under the presidential office consisting of around 20 people, involving medical experts, patients and other members of society, is expected to be launched next week so that related parties can negotiate within the consultative body. The government has previously called on doctors to come up with a unified proposal based on scientific and rational grounds for talks.

The idea, however, only widened the gap between the two sides, as medical circles demanded one-on-one talks with the government. It is also unclear if doctors from the Korean Medical Association and the Korean Intern Resident Association will join the committee.

Lim Hyun-taek, the newly elected president of the KMA, said in an interview with Yonhap News Agency that the plan to create a consultative body to build social consensus is absurd, stressing that the dialogue should only involve the government and the medical community.

Instead, the medical community upped the ante against the government, urging President Yoon Suk Yeol to swiftly resolve the situation and go back to square one on the quota hike, with only five months left for early college admissions for the 2025 academic year.

Park Dan, who heads a KIRA emergency committee, filed an appeal Thursday afternoon, four days after the Seoul Administrative Court dismissed his request to suspend the medical school quota hike, according to Park’s legal representative.

On Wednesday afternoon, the KMA’s emergency committee released a statement urging Yoon to step in to untangle the complex issue.

“We would like to ask the president once again. We believe that the president is the only person who can solve the problem. (Doctors) are not voicing to protect their interests, but speaking out of concerns for Korea’s future,” the statement read.

The Medical Professors Association of Korea also released a statement on the same day saying that the medical community’s unified proposal remains unchanged: rediscussing the medical school enrollment quota increase from the beginning, showing little sign of giving in.

“(The quota hike) will only lead to deterioration in the quality of medical education due to a lack of human resources and facilities. ... The government should look into the situation closely and heed experts’ opinions to determine which measures should be taken,” the MPAK said.

Meanwhile, some 13,000 students from 32 medical schools outside Seoul plan to file injunction requests Monday against their university presidents, asking the court to halt the quota increase.