Thousands of SK doctors stage mass demo in Seoul

SEOUL  -  Thousands of doctors in South Korea took to the streets of Seoul on Sunday to protest the government’s plans to increase medical school admissions and what they see as a broader lack of support for the country’s medical system. The doctors say the government needs to address a wider range of challenges facing the healthcare system than just the total number of doctors trained per year.

Their concerns include staffing in specific fields and the price the government pays for essential medical treatments as well as establishing a proper infrastructure for educating large numbers of new medical students.

The government’s plan, announced in February, will increase the number of students admitted to medical schools by 2,000 starting in the 2025 academic year which would bring the total to 5,000 per year.

Trainee doctors are also angry over difficult working conditions that include low pay and long hours. Around 8,000 trainee doctors in South Korea began striking on February 21 by submitting their resignation. A further 1,000 have resigned since then.

The move comes in a bid to meet the changing healthcare demands of one of the world’s fastest aging societies and to boost access in rural areas of the country, according to the government.

The number of child care facilities in the country has shrunk by almost a quarter in just a few years, CNN reported in July, reflecting authorities’ unsuccessful campaign to encourage couples to have more babies.

Meanwhile, as the population rapidly ages, the number of elderly facilities has boomed from 76,000 in 2017 to 89,643 in 2022, according to the country’s health and welfare ministry.

Compounding the challenge, South Korea has the world’s lowest birth rate, which has been falling continuously since 2015. On Tuesday, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said his government would not back down on its plans.

“Protecting people such as children, the elderly, and people with disabilities is directly linked to the government’s core policy on welfare for the vulnerable populations in healthcare. Therefore, this [medical reform] is not a matter for negotiations or compromise,” he said at a press conference. According to a recent Gallup poll, 76% of respondents favoured expanding medical school admissions. On Thursday, the government issued a back-to-work order, warning striking doctors their medical licenses could be suspended if they did not comply.

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