South Korea’s Yoon urges doctors to end impasse over trainees

By Thomson Reuters Mar 31, 2024 | 11:16 PM

By Hyonhee Shin

SEOUL (Reuters) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Monday his government is open to talks with doctors who oppose his plan to increase medical school admissions, while accusing critics of offering no reasonable alternative to ease a doctor shortage.

In a 50-minute address to the country, Yoon signalled his willingness for the first time to seek a compromise on his medical reform proposals after the government called for dialogue with striking doctors.

Yoon apologised for the inconvenience caused by the ongoing strike by trainee doctors but accused the medical sector of putting their own interests ahead of public health.

“If you come up with a more proper and reasonable solution, we can discuss it as much as you want,” he said. “If you present better opinions and rational grounds, government policy can change for the better.”

More than 90% of the country’s 13,000 trainee doctors have been staging walkouts since Feb. 20 in protest against the government’s plan to boost medical school admissions by 2,000 starting in 2025 from 3,000 now.

South Korea’s population of 52 million had 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people in 2022, far below the average of 3.7 for countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).

Previous governments have devised measures to tackle deepening shortages of doctors in essential services including paediatrics and emergency units, as well as clinics outside the greater Seoul area, but their efforts fell apart amid strong opposition from the medical sector.

Some medical professionals have said the Yoon administration had failed to consult in advance, and its plan would do little to fix the current situation including low pay for trainee doctors.

Yoon refuted several claims by doctors’ groups and highlighted why medical reform is imperative.

“After keeping a deafening silence over the government’s request to provide specific numbers for medical school quotas, the medical community is now throwing numbers like 350, 500 and 1,000 without any grounds,” he said.

“If they want to argue that the scale of the increase should be reduced, they should propose a unified idea with solid scientific evidence, rather than taking collective action.”

(Reporting by Hyonhee Shin; Editing by Stephen Coates)