May 23, 2024

Holistic Pulse

Healthcare is more important

S. Korean healthcare system faces collapse as medical professors warn of collective resignation

4 min read
A ward at a university hospital in Seoul is closed off due to a shortage in medical personnel on Mar. 7. (Yonhap News)

A ward at a university hospital in Seoul is closed off due to a shortage in medical personnel on Mar. 7. (Yonhap News)

The emergency action committee of the faculty association of Seoul National University (SNU) medical school has warned of en masse resignations if the government fails to resolve its clash with medical residents and interns by Mar. 18. The conflict between the government and medical residents has spread to include medical school professors.

Professors at the Catholic University of Korea, Dankook University, and Chung-ang University are pressuring the government to enter talks with doctors on the premise of reducing the number of medical students in its proposed quotas. 

The government, on the other hand, has reiterated that the scale of the medical school quotas is not subject to negotiation. Both sides are refusing to yield.

On Tuesday, professors at the SNU College of Medicine and the Catholic University of Korea School of Medicine declared that they are willing to engage in dialogue once the government becomes more flexible towards its policy of increasing the annual national medical school quota by 2,000 students.

Bang Jae-seung, head of the emergency committee of the faculty association of SNU medical school, held a press conference at the National Assembly, saying, “The committee proposes that the government does set the increase of 2,000 medical school students nationwide in stone. Instead, we propose that the government forms a consultative body under the premise that increases in the medical school quota may be a possibility.”

Medical professors at the Catholic University of Korea also released a statement, in which they claimed, “Professors are working tirelessly to treat those who are critically ill and in essential treatment, but they are reaching their limits.

“The government shouldn’t be insisting on the specific increase of 2,000 more admission spots, but create a panel for opinions to be discussed freely,” they urged.

The Association of Medical School Professors at National Universities, a group of professors from 10 national universities, also called for “the government to place themselves in the shoes of medical residents and interns, and to promote an atmosphere of consultation and amicable dialogue with those in the medical field.”

Initially, some in the government and medical community had held out hopes that professors would play the role of mediators in the conflict.

The professors are a major influence among residents and interns, serving as individual advisors and counselors over the decade or so needed for medical students, interns, and residents to develop into specialists. Within the physicians’ community, the professors are respected for their academic knowledge and their performance of the most difficult duties.

Doctors embarked on a collective treatment boycott back in 2020 amid their objections to a medical college admission cap increase during the Moon Jae-in administration. Even after the administration reached an official consensus with a consultative group from the medical community, there were still students who rejected the Moon administration’s policy and refused to go back to work. Professors were the ones who eventually convinced the students to come aboard. Professors also served as mediators in negotiations between the government, interns and residents, and medical students so that the policy could be implemented.

When the government made a request on Feb. 26 for a consultative body that would represent physicians in different positions — while questioning the representation from the private practitioner-centered Korea Medical Association (KMA) — this was based on the assumption that professors would be included as participants. 

But with the medical school faculty instead opting to participate in the collective action, analysts said the conflict between the government and medical world has only intensified.

While interns, residents, and fellows are responsible for inpatient management and assistance with operations, professors are responsible for performing surgery on critical patients and conducting outpatient treatment. If the professors walk, hospital operations effectively come to a standstill.

“The professors’ response has intensified as the state has announced punishments for interns and residents. Government officials have stated they intend to apply the ‘maximum legal penalties’ against interns and residents who have left the workplace,” a professor of pediatric medicine at a national university told the Hankyoreh.

While the government has emphasized its willingness to negotiate with the interns, residents, and faculty members, the state is refusing to budge when it comes to the increase in the national admission cap by 2,000.

In a briefing, presidential office spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung quoted President Yoon Suk-yeol as saying during a meeting of senior-level secretaries on Tuesday that they should “pursue healthcare reforms promptly as principles dictate.”

In a Central Disaster and Safety Countermeasures Headquarters (CDSCG) briefing, Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo declared, “The government’s position on increasing the medical college admission cap by 2,000 is firm.”

“We reiterate that this is a task that can no longer be put off,” he added. 

By Cheon Ho-sung and Kim Yoon-ju, staff reporters
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