Korean doctors are some of the best-paid in the world. Now many are refusing to work to protest plans to make it easier to attend medical school

More than 60% of South Korean trainee doctors have not reported for work in a protest that has strained the medical system as they attempt to reverse a government plan to increase the intake at medical schools. 

About 8,024 trainee doctors have left their work sites, the Ministry of Health and Welfare reported Thursday. There are about 13,000 trainee doctors in South Korea and the labor action has widened since it kicked off in full force this week. Their numbers have risen from 1,600 on Tuesday who didn’t report for work and 7,813 the following day.

The ministry said it has ordered 6,038 of the trainee doctors to return to work, and resignation letters submitted by 9,275 of the group have not been accepted. The trainee doctors play key roles in providing emergency care and are similar to medical residents. 

Selected surgeries have been reduced at five major general hospitals in Seoul due to the walkout, Yonhap reported. The government has opened emergency rooms at 12 military hospitals nationwide to the public as some hospitals have been trying to steer potential patients away from their emergency facilities due to staffing shortages.

The fight is over President Yoon Suk Yeol’s plans to increase the number of slots at medical schools from next year by 2,000 from the current 3,058 to alleviate a doctor shortage that ranks among the worst among developed countries. The government has said the move would add medical professionals to more parts of the country and in more fields, which will be needed as South Korea faces a demographic crisis with one of the world’s fastest aging populations.

Polls shows about 75% of the public supports the move that could help reduce waiting times and increase access to health care. Yoon has also seen his approval rating increase as he takes a tough stance in the dispute, providing a boost as his conservative People Power Party tries to take control of parliament in April elections.

The government has warned it could conduct investigations of doctors who continue to take part in the labor action despite orders to return to work. Yoon has likened the move by doctors to walk off the job as holding hostage the lives and health of people. 

Park Dan, head of emergency committee at Korea Intern Resident Association, told national TV broadcaster KBS, doctors are not backing down to the government and will remain off the job.

South Korean doctors rank as some of the best paid in the world and could see their earning power drop if there are more physicians to see patients. This has led some analysts to say the labor action suggests doctors are more concerned about protecting their self interests than improving the health-care system. 

The doctors said the move to increase spots at medical schools would not address fundamental problems such as difficult working conditions, a lack of specialists in fields seen as lower paying and a concentration of doctors in urban areas.

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