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[Editorial] Game of chicken

Both sides should try to persuade general public with reason, sincerity

By Korea Herald

Published : March 25, 2024 - 05:31

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Trainee doctors who walked out over a month ago, and refused to comply with the government’s order to return to work face three-month license suspensions starting this week. Professors at 19 medical schools said they would begin tendering their resignations from Monday unless the government takes proactive steps for dialogue.

Once their medical licenses are suspended, the interns and residents will not be allowed to do even volunteer work as doctors inside or outside of South Korea. They can’t go work abroad either, as they won't be able to get the Health Ministry’s recommendations required for getting the necessary visas.

Nonetheless, a majority of the junior physicians don’t seem to mind not working for another three months.

Nearly 12,000, or 93 percent of the trainee doctors at the nation’s 100 teaching hospitals have left work in protest of the government’s plan to admit 2,000 more students to medical schools per year. About 9,000, or close to half of the students at the country’s 40 medical schools have requested a leave of absence.

A group of medical students who are not taking part in the collective action issued a statement on social media urging the medical students’ associations and medical colleges to stop coercing or threatening them to participate in the mass boycott of classes. Similar complaints have been made among junior doctors and medical professors.

The professors said that after they offer to resign, they will reduce their weekly work hours to 52 hours, and minimize outpatient consultations from April to focus on critical or emergency patients.

Bang Jae-seung, leader of an emergency committee of professors at medical schools nationwide, proposed earlier this month that the government be more flexible about the number 2,000, and that the Korean Medical Association retract its demand of scrapping the increase and organize a consultative group for talks. But his proposal was dismissed by the KMA, which will elect its new president by Tuesday. The choice is between a man who called the Yoon Suk Yeol administration fascist and another who vowed to make Yoon step down.

Whoever earns a license to practice medicine automatically becomes a member of the KMA, which is led by physicians who own their practices, but only about 50,000 of them pay their membership fees and vote. The Korean Intern Resident Association hasn’t said much other than voicing their strong resistance to the increase.

The government is deploying additional military physicians and doctors from public health care centers at the teaching hospitals from Monday and plans to allow retirement-age doctors to extend their employment at the National Medical Center.

Sung Tae-yoon, director of national policy at the presidential office, said during an interview with KBS on Sunday that the government can review the medical school quota five years later if necessary, but there is no plan at the moment to revise the figure of 2,000.

If the doctors truly want to fix chronic problems in the country’s medical system, they should coordinate amongst themselves to present ideas on how to do that to the government. Merely claiming that the number 2,000 has no logical grounds or accusing the government of making them look bad will not solve their problems. The government, too, should avoid appearing like it will crack down on physicians until they succumb. The ministry's announcement on Thursday that it will offer a reward of up to 3 billion won for reports on doctors who received illegal rebates from pharmaceutical companies, for instance, makes it look more bellicose than thoughtful.

Both sides should try to persuade the general public with reason and sincerity. The use of militant language like that of the KMA will only drive the majority of Koreans further away from them.