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[Editorial] Time to end standoff

Medical school admission hike of 1,509 finalized for 2025; confrontation continues

By Korea Herald

Published : May 27, 2024 - 05:28

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South Korea has finalized the first increase in its total medical school enrollment quota in 27 years, a move that the government hopes will help address the shortage of doctors in the coming years.

But the outlook for a full normalization of the country’s medical services hit by the prolonged strikes of trainee doctors remains uncertain.

The Korean Council for University Education, a group of university presidents, held its admission committee meeting Friday, where it approved the hike of 1,469 additional medical school places at 31 universities. The total medical school quota for 2025 is set to reach 4,567, a hike of 1,509, including 40 additional seats at Cha University, which is not a council member.

The council’s decision came after the Seoul High Court on May 16 struck down a request from striking doctors and opponents for an injunction against the government’s plan to drastically boost medical school quota by 2,000 from the current 3,058.

In March, the government initially allocated 2,000 additional seats to universities, mostly outside the greater Seoul region, in a bid to grapple with the country’s fast-aging population and a shortage of physicians in rural areas and in relatively low-paying yet essential fields.

But the final increase was lower than 2,000 as some universities with medical schools opted for a smaller increase in the face of protests from trainee doctors and medical students.

Now that the quota increase is approved, the universities are set to publicly announce their 2025 admission plan later this month. However, the standoff between the government and striking doctors shows no sign of a compromise. More than 12,000 junior doctors -- medical interns and residents -- have been off the job for over three months since February, a move that is largely supported by senior doctors and medical associations.

The junior doctors’ walkouts have caused cancellations of surgeries and other treatments at major general hospitals where they assist fully qualified doctors. As a result, some general hospitals are reportedly struggling with financial losses, while remaining doctors are reducing the number of consultations with patients due to exhaustion and the staff shortage.

The government has managed to gain public support for its quota increase plan, but its aggressive administrative steps, focused only on procedures without fully consulting with the stakeholders, has come under criticism. Even the Seoul High Court noted the “incomplete or inappropriate” situations when it ruled in favor of the government’s push, signaling an indirect warning about its unilateral moves that aggravated the confrontation with striking doctors.

Both senior and junior doctors have long been urged to seek a compromise with the government to bring the disrupted medical services back to normal, but they have insisted the entire quota hike plan itself must be canceled, leaving no room for constructive discussions and drowning out even the objective voices of experts who point out potential side effects of a massive admission increase.

Aside from the resistance from doctors, the government and medical schools have to resolve the lack of preparation for the admission increase. The Medical Professors Association of Korea said last week that 95 percent of respondents in a survey of 1,031 members at 30 universities held a view that their schools are “not ready” for the hike in terms of classrooms and facilities. And 85.5 percent said it would be difficult to secure enough medical professors.

On Sunday, President Yoon Suk Yeol instructed the Education Ministry to “work with universities to fully prepare for the college admission process” that reflects the quota hike and asked the Health Ministry to encourage trainee doctors to return to hospitals, according to Sung Tae-yoon, the presidential chief of staff for policy. But this is not enough. The government must make greater efforts to talk with striking doctors to end the painful standoff and prevent irreversible damage to the country’s broader medical services.