SEOUL: Hundreds of South Korean trainee doctors went on strike on Friday (Aug 7) to protest a government plan to boost the number of medical students in the country, arguing it would be a poor use of additional funding for the sector.
The government said its goal to increase the number of medical students by 4,000 over the next 10 years is necessary to better prepare for public health crises like the coronavirus pandemic.
The student doctors, however, say that funding would be better spent improving the salaries of existing trainees, which would encourage them to move out of Seoul to rural areas where more professionals are needed.
Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun had urged the intern and resident doctors to call off the 24-hour strike, which comes as South Korea battles smaller but persistent clusters of COVID-19 infections.
"It is very concerning that medical gap will occur in ERs and ICUs that have direct links with the citizens' lives," Chung said in remarks posted online.
Chung asked the striking doctors to instead talk with the government, although he did not offer any concessions.
Severance Hospital, one of the big five hospitals in Seoul, told Reuters a majority of its 90 interns and 370 residents were taking part in the strike. It added that other doctors would fill the gap to prevent disruptions.
The government announced in July that it planned to boost the usual medical school quota of 3,058 admissions each year by around 400, or 13 per cent, over the next decade. The quota had been fixed since 2006.
Incentives will be offered for students majoring in less lucrative specialities such as epidemiology and those who volunteer for public health work in rural areas.
The country has fewer than 300 infectious disease specialists, representing less than 1 per cent of its 100,000 doctors. And while Seoul has three doctors for every 1,000 people on average, the ratio in North Gyeongsang province, for example, falls to 1.4, said Health Minister Park Neung-hoo.
"The main reason for promoting this policy is to secure doctors where they are needed," Park said. "Our goal is to first increase the number of doctors in rural provinces, so that those who live in even the countryside could get proper treatment."
The government plans to send three-quarters of the additional trainees to rural provinces, in exchange for tuition waivers and scholarships. If the 10-year stint is not completed, their medical license will be revoked.
"NOTHING TO LOSE"
The trainee doctors taking strike action maintain South Korea already has enough medical professionals, and they should be better paid to encourage a wider geographical spread.
"We, young doctors, are paid at the minimum wage and work 80 hours a week, twice what the labour law stipulates," the Korean Intern Resident Association (KIRA) said. "We have nothing to lose."
The association, which has 16,000 members, estimated it costs up to 300 million won (US$253,000) to train a doctor, meaning the government's program will cost more than 1 trillion won.
Park Jee-hyun, 29, KIRA president and a fourth-year resident in general surgery, said the government "should arrange more meetings with young doctors to listen to their demands before drafting medical legislation".
Park Yoon-hyung, professor of preventive medicine at Soonchunhyang University College of Medicine, said more efficient use of military doctors already assigned to regional areas - but mostly not actively involved in public hospitals or health centres - would also help.
A petition with almost 20,000 signatures calls for funding to be diverted to financially strained rural hospitals so they can offer stronger job security to medical staff. It also urges the government to make use of the around 700 doctors who retire from university hospitals and private clinics each year.
Trainee doctors are planning a second strike next weekend.