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[Editorial] Medical reform

Doctors, government should shelve conflict amid a resurgence in coronavirus cases

There is no sign of the ongoing controversy over planned medical reform being settled amid mounting concerns over a resurgence in the number of novel coronavirus cases.

Local doctors staged a one-day strike across the country Friday to protest the government’s medical reform plan, causing some disruptions at mostly small clinics.

The scheme, among other things, calls for raising admission quotas at medial schools by 400 a year for a decade starting 2022 and opening a new public medical school. The number of students admitted annually to medical schools is set to increase to 3,458 in the 2022-2031 period from the current 3,058.

Health Ministry officials cite the need to enhance medical infrastructure in provincial areas, the vulnerability of which has been laid bare amid the coronavirus crisis, as a main reason to push for the plan.

But the Korea Medical Association, an interest group of doctors, is vehemently opposing it.

It insists there are already enough physicians in the country, demanding changes to the medical fee system to reduce the number of practitioners in certain fields where there is an oversupply, such as plastic surgery and dermatology.

It argues that increasing the number of doctors as proposed by the government would only lead to excessive competition, and might do little to ease the disparity in medical services between large cities and provincial areas.

The group also calls on the government to abandon measures aimed at expanding remote medical services, which have become more necessary amid the spread of the coronavirus disease.

Choi Dae-zip, head of the KMA, warned that doctors across the country would strike again for three days in late August unless the government reacts “responsibly” to their demands.

Trainee doctors at general hospitals, who staged a separate one-day strike earlier this month, are scheduled to go on indefinite strike this week.

Friday’s strike, during which more than 30 percent of clinics in the nation closed their doors, marked the third major walkout by local medical workers in the past two decades, after those in 2000 and 2014.

The doctors’ group criticizes the government for rolling out the medical reform plan without consulting doctors.

But its arguments against the plan seem far from enough to justify doctors going on strike at a time when the country is struggling to stem a resurgence in coronavirus infections.

With about 100,000 doctors active here, the number of clinical physicians per 1,000 people remains at 2.4 in South Korea, far below the average of 3.5 for member states of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Moreover, a majority of doctors are in practice in the Greater Seoul area, with the gap with other regions in the figure exceeding 10 times.

The KMA cites the possibility of misdiagnosis increasing as a reason for objecting to the introduction of remote medical services. But few cases of misdiagnosis have been reported from such services that have been implemented on a temporary basis since February to cope with the coronavirus pandemic.

With its medical workforce proving competent and efficient, Korea has no reason to maintain a legal ban on remote medical services, which have been competitively adopted by both advanced and developing nations around the world.

It would further damage public trust in the medical profession if doctors continue to resort to a collective act that could endanger patients’ lives.

But on the other hand, health authorities have chosen a bad time to push for a medical reform plan opposed by doctors.

They appear to have judged that the coronavirus crisis would help form an atmosphere favorable for implementing reform measures, but the attempt has only resulted in amplifying objections from doctors.

With the number of coronavirus cases spiking again, it is no time for the government and the medical profession to remain at loggerheads.

Both sides should step back now and focus on cooperating to stem the spread of the infectious disease.

Doctors need to withdraw their planned walkouts and the government has to shelve its medical reform plan. They should and could take time to hold discussions on how to improve the country’s medical system after the ongoing pandemic crisis is brought under control.