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[Editorial] Talks must begin

Government, doctors should avoid emotional language, sit for talks

By Korea Herald

Published : March 21, 2024 - 05:31

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The government’s plan to increase medical school enrollment by 2,000 from next year became more specific on Wednesday as it announced that 1,639, or 82 percent, of the additional places will go to colleges outside the greater Seoul area.

Of the 40 medical colleges in South Korea, 13 are in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province. They account for 1,035 places, or 33.8 percent, of the nation’s current total of 3,058.

In case of the so-called “mini” medical colleges that admit fewer than 50 students a year, having too few pupils compared to the input of resources for medical education has been a problem of inefficiency among others. Their student quotas will be raised to between 100 and 130.

As the medical schools outside the greater Seoul area are required by law to have pupils who completed three years of high school in their respective regions account for a certain percentage of their total student quota, the move has already prompted some parents to consider moving to those regions. Starting from the school year of 2028, the “local talents” are also required to have completed three years of middle school outside the greater Seoul area.

The Korean Intern Resident Association and the Korean Medical Association, which have led the monthlong strikes by nearly 10,000 trainee doctors, have warned of a “catastrophic result.” Medical college professors have vowed to resign should the government and the junior doctors refuse to sit down for meaningful talks.

The Health Ministry has said it will revamp the national health insurance system to raise compensation for treatment in vital areas such as pediatrics and general surgery.

The doctors’ groups are most fiercely opposing the drastic increase in medical school enrollment, saying it will degrade the quality of medical education. The government says it will provide all necessary support to make sure that doesn’t happen.

The medical community has resisted the increase for too long. The previous Moon Jae-in administration in 2020 had proposed increasing the annual medical student quota by 400 each year for 10 years, but they gave up after doctors walked out collectively, and medical students refused to take the state-run medical licensing exam.

By now, the doctors’ groups must have realized that the government will not back down this time. By law, the government can order medical personnel to resume medical services if they have halted them without a justifiable cause. Violators of the order can have their licenses suspended for up to a year, and face up to three years in prison or a fine of up to 30 million won.

No one, however, wants to suspend physicians' licenses, or put them behind bars. Both the doctors' groups and the government should refrain from emotional language, and level-headedly negotiate the specifics of the government's 10-trillion-won policy package to support health care in vital specialties and provinces.

A presidential aide has said that the government was open to discussing the quota increase. In response to a question “shouldn’t the government slightly adjust its position that it cannot reduce even a single place from the 2,000 in order to make dialogue possible?” during a media interview Monday, senior presidential secretary Jang Sang-yoon said “we are open to that agenda,” adding that the Health Ministry and the medical community were talking.

The medical community’s proposal of 500 or 350, however, should come with plausible reasons, Jang said. The government will explain and persuade with scientific and logical reasons why it decided on the number 2,000, he said.

The KMA is electing its new president in the three days starting Wednesday. Of the five candidates, only one supports an increase in the medical student quota. The other four have warned of a "fierce battle" to resist the government policy. They should know, however, that dialogue is the only way out of this costly mess.