South Korean doctors’ anger goes beyond medical student enrollment numbers

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Medical professors line up to tender their resignations during a meeting at Korea University in Seoul on March 25, 2024.

Following in the footsteps of students and interns, medical professors are joining the fight against the government’s plan to increase the enrollment cap for medical schools. On Monday, March 25, they symbolically tendered their resignations and will reduce their workload to 52 hours per week (legal working hours), compared with 80 hours on average. “From April 1, we will limit our activities to emergency care and surgery for critically ill patients,” explained Cho Yun-jung of the Medical Professors Association of Korea at a press conference on March 20.

They join a movement launched following the government’s February announcement, confirmed on March 20, to increase the number of medical students by 2,000, bringing the total to 5,058. Seoul aims to address a doctor shortage in a rapidly aging country, estimated to reach 15,000 by 2035.

The medical world is opposed to a bill deemed simplistic. It sees it as a threat to the quality of care and a bypass around the structural reforms that South Korean medicine requires. Despite its high standards, the system is undermined by imbalances among specialties and primarily economic considerations. The medical world also criticizes the government for launching a “populist” reform in the run-up to the April 10 parliamentary elections.

This has led to a widespread – and unpopular – movement driven by medical students, with 93% tendering their resignations. The crisis has severely disrupted healthcare services, forcing the government to call upon military and retired doctors.

‘Modern-day slaves’

“It breaks our hearts to leave our patients. However, the current system isn’t working,” said Park Dan, president of the interns’ union. These interns can make up more than 40% of staff in major teaching hospitals and play a vital role in emergency rooms, intensive care units and operating theaters. “We’re modern-day slaves. We work on one-year contracts and are not subject to labor laws. We work 100-hour weeks for poverty-level wages,” said an anonymous intern. They earn an average of 3.98 million won a month (€2,750) for 80 hours, or 11,400 won an hour (€7.80), 2,000 won (€1.40) more than the minimum wage.

Read more Subscribers only In South Korea, a doctors’ strike creates chaos in hospitals

Therefore, they constitute cheap labor for institutions which, to save money, hire few specialists, while these professionals opt for the private sector to earn more money.

Meanwhile, patients swear by the big hospitals, starting with Seoul’s five largest, such as Samsung and Yonsei. They flock there from all over the country, even for treatment that could be provided locally. As a result, provincial hospitals are under-utilized and struggle to attract and retain qualified staff.

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