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[Editorial] Be a doctor, or not

Ball is in trainee doctors' court

By Korea Herald

Published : April 22, 2024 - 05:30

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The government said Friday it will let universities decide on the number of medical school freshmen they want to admit next year within a certain range, in an apparent compromise in its standoff with doctors.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo said that universities will be allowed to increase the places between 50 percent and 100 percent of the previously allocated increment. For instance, Gyeongsang National University’s medical college, which was set to admit a total of 200 freshmen next year as it was allocated 124 additional places, can now choose to recruit between 138 and 200.

Then, on Sunday, deans of the nation's medical schools made a statement in which they implored the government to not change the admission quota for next year, and proposed that they organize a consultative group to discuss medical school enrollment in the future.

Ever since nearly 12,000 trainee doctors walked off the job two months ago in protest of the plan to increase the country’s annual medical school admission quota by 2,000 to 5,058, medical students have also boycotted classes and filed applications to collectively take leaves of absence. The Education Ministry, however, has disallowed the schools from approving them.

The deans said if the students continue to not return to school, the deans have no choice but to approve their leaves of absence to minimize tuition losses and flunking the students en masse.

The deans said the resignations by trainee doctors and mass flunking of medical students would lead to "a collapse of the medical personnel training system and an irrecoverable educational loss."

They said they tried their best to normalize the academic calendar, but as the beginning of the semester has repeatedly been delayed, they won't be able to meet the legally required number of school days by the end of this month.

In addition to trainee doctors, the government has to deal with the thousands of medical students who are refusing to go back to school.

In the two months the trainee doctors have been gone, nurses and medical professors who also work at large hospitals have overworked themselves to the point of burnout. More than 40 percent of the senior doctors at Seoul National University Hospital, for instance, are working over 80 hours per week.

The Korean Medical Association said Saturday that they reject the government’s new plan. Neither the government nor the Korean public cares about what the KMA says anymore. The KMA, which has driven doctors' strikes for years every time the government sought to increase the number of physicians, doesn’t represent the trainee doctors. The KMA, consisting of mostly doctors who own their practice, and the Korean Intern Resident Association apparently do not discuss things with each other, let alone cooperate.

The ball is now in the trainee doctors’ court. They should form a group of representatives to narrow down their key demands, coordinate with medical students and talk with the government.

Most of the medical students, interns and residents probably never had a good long vacation since their teenage years. Ever since attaining the license to practice medicine became the most popular goal sought after by the nation’s brightest kids, medical colleges have been filled with those who have the highest Suneung scores and perfect high school grades. Now that they have taken some time off, and the government has yielded on the size of the enrollment increase, it is the trainee doctors’ turn to make a decision on whether to bargain and settle, or remain on their path to nowhere.

Trainee doctors should choose to narrow down their key demands and negotiate with the government to improve their working conditions with the intention of returning to work, or keep resting and look for work in another field.