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Medical standoff enters 2nd stage after election, failed dialogue

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : April 12, 2024 - 17:49

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President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) shakes hands with a medical professional as he visits a secondary hospital in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Tuesday. (Presidential Office) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) shakes hands with a medical professional as he visits a secondary hospital in Bucheon, Gyeonggi Province, on Tuesday. (Presidential Office)

The two-month medical standoff between the Yoon Suk Yeol administration and medical circles will likely enter its second stage, amid no signs of initiating talks over the government's medical school admission plan and the looming medical crisis following defiant doctors' mass resignations.

The ruling bloc's crushing defeat in Wednesday's general election was a testament that voters "had brought judgment" to the ruling bloc, which pushed to increase the medical school admission quota beginning next year, Kim Sung-geun, head of the public relations council of the Korean Medical Association's emergency committee, told reporters Friday afternoon at a press conference held in Seoul.

Kim added that the ruling bloc's defeat proved that its admission quota hike plan was "a populist campaign pledge to buy votes," and reiterated the KMA's stance that the government should bring any of its decisions related to medical reform back to square one.

Kim also urged the government to retract its legal actions on defiant doctors who walked out "voluntarily," including back-to-work orders and medical license suspensions, should it attempt to begin talks with the medical circles.

This was a follow-up to a statement by advocacy groups at odds with the government over Seoul's plan to increase the number of doctors in the country that suffers from the shortage of physicians in essential medical sectors such as pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology.

On Thursday, the Medical Professors Association of Korea said in a statement that the ruling bloc's resounding defeat stems from "people's judgment on the government's magisterial approach, self-righteousness and failure to communicate" with parties concerned before pushing through the medical school hike plan.

It also urged medical schools to retract their plans to "increase their respective student quota following the allocation results of the Education Ministry."

A group advocating patients' rights also released a statement Tuesday that the election result "reflects the public sentiment of those suffering from the fallout of the gridlock between the government and medical circles," adding the deadlock "must not cost any lives of patients."

Figures from the ruling bloc also called for the government's change of stance. People Power Party's Rep. Ahn Cheol-soo, who is set to become a four-term lawmaker after winning a seat at the Bundang-A constituency in Gyeonggi Province, said on his social media that the government "must defer the admission quota hike by a year." Ahn was formerly a physician and entrepreneur before making his way into politics.

Kim Sung-geun, head of the public relations council of the Korean Medical Association's emergency committee, speaks during a press briefing at KMA headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap) Kim Sung-geun, head of the public relations council of the Korean Medical Association's emergency committee, speaks during a press briefing at KMA headquarters in Seoul on Friday. (Yonhap)

Yoon has long asserted that the medical school quota hike should precede any efforts to reform medical sectors. In line with Yoon's medical reform drive, the conservative government has already fixed the 2025 medical admission quota to 5,058, up from the 3,058 it has been since 2006.

This triggered a backlash from the medical community. Lim Hyun-taek, a hard-liner elected as the president of the KMA in March, said in a media interview ahead of the election that the ruling People Power Party might lose up to 30 seats at the parliament in Wednesday's election, as some 140,000 physicians in the country would be influenced by "(KMA's) election campaign that would deal a blow to (the People Power Party)."

The government, in the meantime, has paused its daily press briefing since Tuesday, just a day before the legislative election.

Beforehand, the Health Ministry had been holding daily briefings since the announcement of the medical school quota hike plan in early February. In Monday's briefing, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo said the government is open to internally discussing the quota hike deferral, but both the government and Yoon's office denied Park's remarks later in the day.