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South Korea: 6,400 trainee doctors resign over government’s enrolment quota

Over 6,400 trainee doctors in South Korea have submitted resignations in protest of the government’s plan to increase the number of medical students, raising concerns about potential risks to public health.

Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo reported on Tuesday that the ministry had ordered 831 trainee doctors to return to work amidst escalating tensions over the plan to add 2,000 to the country’s medical school enrolment quota in 2025.

As of Monday, 6,415 trainee doctors at 100 hospitals had submitted resignations, with about 1,600 walking off the job. While some patients have experienced delays in surgeries and treatments, there hasn’t been a major disruption in medical services yet. To address potential service disruptions, the government plans to extend operating hours at 97 public hospitals and open emergency rooms at 12 military hospitals to the public.

“We are deeply disappointed and concerned that the collective action by trainee doctors had led to a disruption in medical services, such as the cancellation of surgeries,” Mr Park said.

He added, “We cannot give justification to the actions of the doctors leaving their patients behind to protest a policy in spite of knowing what the collective action could result in.

“The government will put in utmost efforts to operate an emergency medical system to minimize possible damage to the patients.”

The government says the increase in the admission quota is needed to address a shortage of doctors, particularly in rural areas and essential medical fields, such as high-risk surgeries, paediatrics, obstetrics and emergency medicine.

The number of doctors in South Korea relative to the size of the population is among the lowest in the developed world, according to health authorities.

However, doctors have claimed that the government has not had full consultations and that the move will compromise the quality of medical education and services.

On Monday, the government took steps to suspend the medical licences of two officials of the Korea Medical Association, which represents doctors.

According to government officials, if the two officials turn out to be urging doctors to join the collective action, their licences will be cancelled.

Concerns about a vacuum in medical services have already become a reality for some, as trainee doctors at Severance Hospital declared the suspension of their service on the day.

This action prompted the hospital to go into emergency mode and adjust the schedules of surgeries and procedures for patients.

At some major hospitals in Seoul, some patients whose surgeries were not urgent were forced to be discharged or transferred to other hospitals.

A cancer patient’s caregiver at Asan Medical Centre told Yonhap News Agency that due to the strike, “he was notified that he would be admitted to another general hospital nearby and to be admitted again next month (to Asan Medical Centre.”