South Korean Prime Minister Urges Doctors Against Strike Over Medical School Enrollment Increase

SEOUL - South Korean Prime Minister Han Duck-soo on Sunday made a public plea to doctors to avoid taking collective action in response to the government's recent decision to increase medical school enrollment quotas.

According to Yonhap News Agency, the government's move to add 2,000 seats to the medical school freshmen quota next year has sparked significant opposition from the medical community, escalating to warnings of a massive strike. This increase would mark a significant rise from the current 3,058 seats available for medical students.

"The health care vacuum resulting from collective action is something that should never happen, as it takes people's lives and health as hostages," Han emphasized, highlighting the potential adverse effects on public health. The Prime Minister argued that expanding the number of doctors is crucial for the success of the government's medical sector reforms.

The tension escalated following the announcement by trainee doctors at five major general hospitals in Seoul of their plans to resign en masse on Monday and to commence a strike the following day. Han justified the quota increase by pointing to the aging population of both patients and doctors, noting that the quota has remained unchanged for 27 years.

Further, Han reiterated the government's commitment to providing incentives for doctors, including efforts to establish a "safety net" for limiting criminal liability in malpractice cases. Additionally, the government pledged 10 trillion won (approximately US$7.4 billion) by 2028 to improve compensation for medical services in high-risk areas and to encourage more doctors to work in these fields.

Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong also called for dialogue, expressing regret over the Korea Medical Organization's decision to protest and urging medical staff to prioritize patient care.

In anticipation of the strike, the government mandated hospitals to submit daily work logs of doctors and warned of stern actions against those participating in the strike, including the potential revocation of medical licenses for those who fail to comply with return-to-work orders.

As of Friday, 715 trainee doctors from 23 hospitals had submitted their resignation letters, though none had been accepted. The government asserts it will take all necessary legal measures to protect public health and safety.

The Korean Medical Association (KMA) has threatened indefinite strikes if the government continues to pressure interns and residents opposing the plan. In response to Prime Minister Han's statement, the KMA's emergency committee warned of a potential "irreversible medical catastrophe" and accused the government of attempting to suppress and punish doctors.

Major hospitals have already begun adjusting surgery schedules in anticipation of the collective action, and students from 35 out of 40 medical schools have shown solidarity by planning to submit leave of absence requests.

A recent Gallup Korea poll revealed that 76 percent of respondents supported the increase in medical school quotas, indicating public favor towards the government's initiative despite the medical community's resistance.

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