South Korea’s Health Minister Firm on Medical School Admission Expansion Amid Doctor Protests

SEOUL - Health Minister Cho Kyoo-hong on Friday reiterated the government's firm stance on increasing medical school admission seats by 2,000, despite ongoing protests from the medical community. The announcement has sparked a significant strike among interns and resident doctors, affecting the operations of major hospitals since February 20.

According to Yonhap News Agency, who spoke on an SBS radio program, the decision to allocate additional seats was made in consultation with universities, countering claims that the move was unilaterally imposed by the government. About 90 percent of 13,000 junior doctors have ceased working in protest, leading to postponed surgeries and delayed public health services.

The government's response to the protests includes the recent allocation of the contested seats to universities and a comprehensive plan to support the increased student body. "The number of national university professors will be increased by more than 1,000, and relevant ministries will consult to provide additional support if necessary," Cho stated, outlining measures to bolster resources for medical education.

Despite the pushback, the government continues to seek dialogue with the medical community through "unofficial channels," aiming to resolve the standoff. Second Vice Health Minister Park Min-soo called for the striking doctors to return to work, warning of license suspensions for those who defy return-to-work orders. However, the ministry is open to reconsidering the penalties for individuals who show willingness to return or commence dialogue before the enforcement begins.

Park also proposed unconditional negotiations with medical professors who plan to reduce their weekly work hours in protest, emphasizing the government's readiness to engage in discussions to find common ground.

The standoff has escalated with the Korean Medical Association, a leading group of senior doctors, refusing to recognize the current government as legitimate and vowing to continue their fight for a reevaluation of the quota increase. The association and striking doctors argue that the increase in admission quotas could dilute the quality of medical education and lead to higher healthcare costs for patients. They demand attention to issues like underpayment of specialists and the need for better legal protection against medical malpractice lawsuits.

In an effort to mitigate the impact of the medical service disruption, health authorities have designated 100 partner hospitals to facilitate the transfer of patients with mild symptoms from larger institutions, providing financial incentives to both the sending and receiving hospitals.

The government defends its plan to expand medical school admissions as a necessary step to prepare for South Korea's rapidly aging population and to address the shortage of physicians in rural areas and critical specialties such as pediatrics and emergency departments.

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