S. Korea govt offers first compromise in effort to end doctors’ strike

Seoul   -   South Korea’s government offered its first concession to striking doctors on Friday in an effort to end a two-month-long walkout prompted by proposed increases to medical school enrolment. Hospitals have been forced to cancel crucial treatments and surgeries since thousands of trainee doctors walked out on February 20, to protest against an increase in annual admissions by 2,000 slots, starting next year. The government says its plan would ease doctor shortages but medical professionals and trainees have said the changes would erode the quality of education and health services. The heads of six public universities suggested this week reducing the enrolment increase by up to 50 percent and allowing universities the autonomy to set their own admission quotas as a potential way to end the strike. Prime Minister Han Duck-soo told reporters Friday that the government “accepts the suggestions from the presidents of national universities”. For the 2025 academic year only, 32 universities will together be allowed to recruit as few as 1,000 additional medical students, on top of their regular quota, or as many as 2,000 more, he said. It remains unclear whether trainee doctors, who play a key role in emergency procedures and surgeries at general hospitals, will return to work following the offer. The announcement came after President Yoon Suk Yeol’s conservative ruling party was dealt a crushing defeat in parliamentary elections last week. South Korea’s medical community is advocating for a thorough “reevaluation” of the reform plan, effectively urging the government to abandon it.

Lee Seok-young, a spokesman for the Korean Medical Association (KMA), a leading doctors’ representative body, said its stance “remains unchanged”.

Former KMA head Joo Soo-ho told AFP “the current government demonised doctors in order to forcefully implement unreasonable policies”.  “It’s now unlikely that they are going to return to work no matter what happens to this reform plan,” he said. The public initially sympathised with the government over the doctors’ walkout.

However, polls leading up to the April 10 election indicated sentiment had shifted, with nearly 60 percent of people surveyed in a Dong-A Ilbo poll saying the government should adjust the scale and timing of its reform.

The main opposition Democratic Party, which, along with its affiliate, secured 175 of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, had also slammed Yoon for the stalemate and urged him to revise the reform plan.

Han said the latest decision by the government was made to “protect the lives and health of the people”.

Junior doctors say the education reforms are the final straw in a profession where they already struggle with tough working conditions. Some have said they no longer wished to pursue a medical career, regardless of what happens to the reform plan. The government had previously called on doctors to return to their patients, warning of legal consequences for non-compliance and suspending the medical licences of at least two doctors.

The Korean Intern Resident Association, which represents trainee doctors, told AFP they still believed the plan should be reevaluated despite the government’s new proposal. Proponents of the plan say doctors are simply trying to safeguard their salaries and social status.

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