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Yoon says trainee doctors' collective actions 'cannot be tolerated'

Govt. considering giving tax benefits to companies that give cash to employees who have babies

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : Feb. 20, 2024 - 15:38

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President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting held in his office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a Cabinet meeting held in his office in Seoul on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Tuesday said the collective action of trainee doctors to quit their jobs at teaching hospitals cannot be tolerated, and the government has the "constitutional responsibility" to manage medical resources to prevent the nation's medical system from collapsing.

"We are seeing scheduled surgeries being scaled down or suspended, as the (trainee doctors') collective action to halt the provision of medical services was expected," Yoon told the Cabinet at a meeting held in his office, in Yongsan-gu, Seoul.

"Trainee doctors who serve as frontline health care workers, and medical students who would play a key role in future medicine, should not take any collective action that takes citizens' lives and health conditions hostage."

Although doctors are not recognized as public servants like police or soldiers, they should not refuse to provide medical services to people against the government's will, Yoon argued.

"Protecting the lives of citizens' lives and safety ... is the purpose of a state's existence, and is the government's constitutional responsibility," Yoon said. "In this regard, the government is tasked with managing the medical resources with efficiency to protect the citizens."

Yoon's remarks came as over 6,000 trainee doctors, according to the government, have walked off the job as of Tuesday to protest the government's plan to increase the quota of annual medical school admissions by 2,000 nationwide. For the past three decades, 3,058 medical school students have been admitted annually.

If its enrollment quota expansion plan proceeds as planned, beginning next year, South Korea will see a rise in the number of junior doctors starting in 2031, according to the government.

"It is evident that the medical school admissions quota increase is a prerequisite to prevent the collapse of essential medical sectors," Yoon said, referring to a staffing shortage crisis in sectors such as emergency rooms, pediatrics clinics, obstetrics and gynecology clinics.

Yoon also refuted the doctors' argument that raising the medical school admissions quota would compromise the quality of education at medical schools.

"The enrollment quota of Seoul National University's medical school currently stands at 135, but 40 years ago (the quota) was 260," Yoon said. "In the past 40 years, the demand for medical services has seen explosive growth, meanwhile the medical school quota has halved."

The president emphasized that the doctors who were trained 40 years ago do not perform worse than those who have trained since then and that they have instead "spearheaded efforts to make the quality of (Korean) health care services world-class."

Meanwhile, Yoon said during the Cabinet meeting that the government is working to announce tax benefits soon to companies offering cash to employees having a baby.

Yoon thanked corporations' efforts to help the country overcome the population crisis stemming from the low fertility rate of 0.78 as of 2022. Earlier in February, construction firm Booyoung announced plans to offer 100 million won ($74,774) to each employee every time his or her family has a baby.

Seoul is expected to unveil the birth rate for 2023 later in February.