Health sector crisis in Korea: Wave of strikes and protests by doctors in Korea

Korean doctors are organizing a march to protest plans to increase medical school enrollment, makes medical disruption becomes increasingly serious.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA), representing the majority of doctors in this country, announced on March 2 that it would organize a large-scale protest with 20,000 doctors participating in western Seoul today.

This is the latest move by doctors to protest the decision to increase the medical enrollment target by 2,000 people per year from 2025. More than 10,000 resident doctors have submitted their resignations since February 20 (accounting for more than 70% of South Korea’s young doctors), forcing the government to increase pressure, warn of sanctions against them. More than 7,800 people have left the workplace, and nearly 12,000 medical students nationwide also applied to drop out of school, accounting for nearly 63% of all Korean medical students.

The cause of the largest strike in the history of the medical industry in Korea

In 2023, South Korea had 2.2 doctors per 1,000 patients, the lowest doctor-to-patient ratio in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). South Korea is expected to lack 15,000 doctors by 2035 – when the elderly are expected to make up 30% of the population.

The Government has decided to increase the recruitment target for doctors to meet the shortage of doctors. Korea has the lowest ratio of doctors above population among developed countries. Increasing recruitment targets promises to help improve health services in remote areas and meet the needs of a country with a rapidly aging population.

Accordingly, the government launched a medical training reform program, calling for increasing the enrollment target for medical schools by 2,000 people per year from 2025. This is also the first time Korea has increased its medical school enrollment target. after 27 years, to address the rapidly aging society.

Consequences of the largest strike in the history of the medical industry in Korea

This largest-scale strike in history disrupted the Korean medical system, especially in large hospitals.

Many of Korea’s largest hospitals have had to reduce operating capacity by 50%, refuse to accept patients or cancel surgeries, raising concerns that the medical system will be disrupted if a protest movement by internal medicine doctors occurs. prolonged stay.

The views of the doctors participating in the protest

Doctors believe that this shortage can only be improved by addressing their income and working conditions before increasing the number of new medical staff. The situation of overwork, but the compensation is greatly different from other departments, makes resident doctors frustrated.

Korean resident doctors often have to work 80-100 hours 5 days a week, equivalent to 20 hours a day. Departments of pediatrics, obstetrics and gynecology often have lower costs than other “attractive” departments such as cosmetic surgery and dermatology, where hospital fees are set by the doctors themselves, instead of being regulated by health insurance. determined.

Korean doctors protested in front of the presidential office in Seoul on February 22. Photo source: Reuters
Korean doctors protested in front of the presidential office in Seoul on February 22. Photo source: Reuters

“There are people who stay up all night working more than 80 hours a week but we are happy to see patients progressing well. We regret having to do this to make the public pay attention to the voices of young doctors”, the Korean Resident Doctors Association announced.

In addition, it is necessary to recruit more experienced doctors, not increase the number of students and newly graduated doctors. Resident doctors emphasized that increasing medical enrollment will not help fill the staffing gap in essential departments, but will only increase competition in “attractive” departments, especially in Seoul hospitals.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA), which represents the majority of doctors in this country, also accused the plan to increase medical enrollment quotas of being a populist measure to strengthen the government’s position ahead of the election.

“Even if we increase the training of thousands of doctors, there is no guarantee they will enter essential departments or public hospitals,” said the Korea Federation of Medical Rights Activist Groups (KMFA).

The Korean government’s response to strikes and protests

Police searched the homes and offices of officials of the Korean Medical Association due to suspicions that these officials encouraged doctors to quit their jobs en masse, helping to promote the strike.

The government called on doctors to return to work, declaring that it would not prosecute doctors participating in the strike if they returned to work before February 29. Those who do not comply can have their medical licenses revoked, but the doctors seem to show no signs of giving in. About 6% of striking doctors returned to work before the deadline calling for dialogue with the government. The government also directed hospital leaders to reject intern doctors’ resignation applications.

Reaction of Korean people

The Korean public and many other medical organizations support the plan to increase medical school enrollment quotas. A survey from the Korean Medical Union (KMHU) at the end of 2023 showed that nearly 90% of the public supported increasing the medical school enrollment target, an increase of nearly 20% compared to 2022.

Andrew Eungi Kim, a professor at Korea University, said resident doctors want the government to improve working conditions, but also oppose increasing the number of medical students, due to fear of income. and their social status declined as competition in the field increased.

“If the number of doctors increases over the next 10 years, that will of course reduce their status as a profession that is highly respected and the highest paid in the country. I believe young doctors are thinking about this. “They want to maintain that special status,” he said.

Korea has a dilemma with the health crisis.