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(EDITORIAL from Korea Times on Aug. 7)

All News 07:06 August 07, 2020

Drop strike threat
Doctors should join efforts to boost public health

Medical doctors and trainees have threatened to go on strike to protest a government plan to raise admission quotas at medical schools. If they go ahead with their threat, they cannot avoid criticism for taking collective action to protect their vested interests at the cost of patients.

The Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA), a group of resident doctors and interns, said it will hold an all-out strike starting Friday to oppose the plan to increase admission quotas by 4,000 over 10 years starting from 2022. The Korea Medical Association (KMA), an interest group of 130,000 medical doctors, has also vowed to go on strike Aug. 14 for the same reason. It has called on the Ministry of Health and Welfare to retract the plan which it denounced as a "hasty and unilateral" move.

Those medical professionals and trainees seem to believe that the additional student quotas could nurture an excessive number of doctors, causing competition among them and reducing their income. Yet such a belief is certainly blown out of proportion, considering that South Korea has a shortage of doctors.

According to OECD data, Korea reported 2.3 doctors per 1,000 people as of 2016, lower than the average 3.3 among member states of the rich countries' club. An estimated 106,100 doctors were practicing medicine this year. But 80,300, or 75 percent of them run clinics or work at hospitals in the country's seven major cities, including Seoul, and Gyeonggi Province. This means that provincial areas are suffering an acute shortage of medical professionals.

The country has borne witness to this shortage since the COVID-19 pandemic spread rapidly in the southeastern city of Daegu and its surrounding regions earlier this year. Now there are mounting calls for more doctors, particularly those specializing in public health and epidemiology.

Against this backdrop, medical professionals have no legitimate reason to object to the plan to raise admissions quotas by 4,000 over a decade. Each year the quotas will only expand by 400. Nobody can understand why doctors, residents and interns are against this moderate and gradual increase. The health ministry also plans to make it mandatory for those additional medical students to serve in provincial areas for 10 years after obtaining their license.

Therefore the protesting doctors have gone too far in demanding the withdrawal of the quota hike, as they don't have to worry about an excessive supply of doctors. Their income will not decline even if more students enter medical schools. Instead, the country can address the shortage of medical professionals, provide better healthcare services, and expand the country's capacity to cope with public health crises such as the ongoing outbreak of the novel coronavirus.

Doctors and trainee doctors should not take patients hostage to put forward their self-serving demands. If they stage a general strike, patients and their families will sustain damage. In many cases, their collective action will put patients' lives at risk. They should realize that they will have more to lose than to gain.

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