South Korea will not suspend licences for striking trainee doctors News
DarkoStojanovic / Pixabay
South Korea will not suspend licences for striking trainee doctors

South Korea withdrew from its plan to suspend licenses for striking trainee doctors on Monday. The government’s Medical Action Central Accident Management Department issued a press release regarding the decision, which was made to combat the country’s current shortage of doctors.

Only a small number of medical trainees returned to work last Friday and only eight percent of thousands of trainees were working at 210 teaching hospitals. Each training hospital is to resume operations on July 22, and non-returning trainees are to resign by July 15.

The South Korean government had previously warned that medical trainees had until March 1, 2024 to return to work or face either prosecution or the removal of their licence.

The government’s move to not suspend licences could provoke claims of being unfair because of how the government treated past strikes. Cho Kyoo-Hong said the government was already aware of the potential criticism in their decision and the Medical Action Central Accident Management Department decided to withdraw from the plan to ensure the treatment of critically ill and emergency patients and to maintain the continuity of medical training. The medical school enrolment cap will remain at the current 3,058 places.

In February 2024, thousands of medical interns and resident doctors resigned from their jobs in protest of a government initiative to increase medical school admissions to 2,000 places from the year 2025 onwards. Residents and interns argued that instead of the government focusing on increasing medical school admissions, the working environment and pay needed to change.

As medical trainees comprise 40 percent of hospital staff in South Korea, the resignations created conflict for hospital services and long wait times. On July 4, 2024, Korean patients protested against the four-month strike with at least one citizen claiming the strike caused a relative’s death.

In Korea, the government permits hospitals to have a fixed service fee for necessary medical care, such as pediatrics and emergency, but because these were low, doctors have gravitated towards dermatology and plastic surgery because of higher paying salaries. The government’s plan to increase medical school admissions was developed to confront a doctor shortage caused by an aging population and increase pay for doctors in rural locations, especially in unpopular fields like paediatrics. The Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) reports that South Korea’s doctor-to-patient ratio is the lowest of countries with high economic wealth.

As a result of the protests, the government had intended to suspend and reverse medical licenses but has since reconsidered this stance due to public interest. Cho Kyoo-Hong has asked for trainee doctors to discuss working conditions and medical school admissions. The Ministry of Health and Welfare on South Korea’s official website states that 2026 will see the implementation of the Residents Act but for now, residents returning to work will have special privileges, including reduced working hours.