Doctors plan to walk off the job Friday

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Doctors plan to walk off the job Friday

Thousands of trainee doctors on Friday hold a one-day strike in protest of the government's medical workforce reform plan in Yeouido, western Seoul. The Korean Medical Association plans to stage a separate general strike this Friday. [YONHAP]

Thousands of trainee doctors on Friday hold a one-day strike in protest of the government's medical workforce reform plan in Yeouido, western Seoul. The Korean Medical Association plans to stage a separate general strike this Friday. [YONHAP]

 
Doctors across the country will be going on strike this Friday, following a 24-hour strike by residents and interns protesting the government's plan to turn out more medical students and mandating a majority of them to practice in areas outside Seoul.  
 
“We completely support the strike of the interns and residents,” the Korean Medical Association (KMA), the largest union of doctors in the country, said in a statement Friday. “We will make sure that essential medical care is taken care of at hospitals during their strike and we will try to do so during our strike. But the country has a flawed system when it comes to medical care, and we need the public to know this.”
 
Some 70 percent of 16,000 interns and residents across the country went on strike Friday for 24 hours, according to the Korean Intern Resident Association. Attending doctors and physicians filled in for them and major problems seem to have been avoided at hospitals.
 
Doctors are against a government plan to increase the number of medical students and to require a majority of them to practice outside of Seoul.
 
The ministries of health and education and the ruling Democratic Party (DP) introduced a plan on July 23 at the National Assembly to increase admissions to medical schools by 4,000 students over the next decade from 2022 to 2031, in increments of 400 students annually.  
 
According to the plan, some 3,000 of these new doctors — or 300 out of the 400 yearly — will be given scholarships during their studies and, in return, will be required to practice outside the Seoul metropolitan area. The other 1,000 doctors will be required to specialize in fields such as epidemiology, trauma and biomedical research, which are unpopular fields among doctors in Korea, due mainly to their heavy workload and comparatively low paychecks.  
 
The admissions quota for medical schools has been frozen at 3,058 students per year since 2006. Starting in 2032, the admissions quota will revert back to 3,058 medical students annually, according to the plan.
 
The plan is meant to address a shortage of doctors in Korea and their unequal distribution across the country, the government said.  
 
According to the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) this year, Korea has 2.4 doctors per 1,000 people, which falls short of the OECD average of 3.5 doctors per 1,000 people. Among 105,628 doctors practicing in hospitals and clinics, nearly 54 percent are concentrated in the Seoul metropolitan area as of last year, according to the government. In Seoul, there are 3.1 doctors per 1,000 people. 
 
The KMA immediately protested the plan, saying it was not consulted and threatened strikes this Friday, Sept. 3, Oct. 7 and in November if the government pushes through with it.
 
“Simply expanding the number of doctors is a populist policy and one bound to fail,” the KMA said in a statement on July 23. “What we need are policies on the ground to help local clinics and hospitals to be equipped with fitting medical infrastructure and to create a healthy ecosystem of medical care throughout the country.”
 
Doctors member to Korean Medical Association, the largest union of doctors in Korea, protest in front of the National Assembly in western Seoul on July 23. Their banner reads, "The problem is not in the numbers, it's in the distribution [of doctors]." [YONHAP]

Doctors member to Korean Medical Association, the largest union of doctors in Korea, protest in front of the National Assembly in western Seoul on July 23. Their banner reads, "The problem is not in the numbers, it's in the distribution [of doctors]." [YONHAP]

The union made specific requests to the government on Aug. 1, including canceling the plan to admit more medical students and creating a joint government-union committee that would be operated for the next three years to devise a plan to improve the health care system in Korea, and to stop all legislation that would allow widespread remote medical examination of patients, which doctors called a scheme by medical companies to make money out of new technologies. The union says it is a dangerous trend that could result in life-threatening misdiagnoses and threaten smaller clinics that cannot afford the expensive technologies.  
 
Discussions of allowing remote medical examinations have been taking place since 2014, when the Park Geun-hye administration looked into legalizing them. Doctors walked out in a nationwide strike to protest the plan. The policy has been back on the table in the Korean government since the Covid-19 pandemic hit the country earlier in the year.  
 
Minister of Health and Welfare Park Neung-hoo on Thursday urged doctors across the country not to go on strike at this time, especially as the country battles the coronavirus pandemic.
 
The KMA and Health Ministry are scheduled to hold a meeting on Tuesday.  
 
BY ESTHER CHUNG   [chung.juhee@joongang.co.kr]
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