Trainee Doctor Walkout in South Korea Set to Intensify Over Medical School Admissions Dispute

SEOUL — South Korea is facing escalating tensions in the healthcare sector as new medical school graduates join a growing walkout, protesting the government’s plan to significantly increase the number of medical students. This collective action is anticipated to put considerable pressure on the government, which has already seen thousands of intern and resident doctors from major general hospitals striking for the sixth consecutive day.


According to Yonhap News Agency, the resistance movement has now seen significant participation from graduates due to begin their internships, with a notable number of resignations at key hospitals across the country. At Chonnam National University Hospital in Gwangju, 86 out of 101 scheduled interns have resigned, while Jeju National University Hospital and Pusan National University Hospital have also reported substantial dropout rates among intern candidates. Similarly, at Soonchunhyang University Cheonan Hospital, 32 graduates have declined to start their internships.


The widespread walkouts have led to operational delays in major hospitals, compelling patients, even those in critical condition, to seek care at smaller medical facilities. Some hospitals have had to reduce the number of shifts in their intensive care units due to the acute shortage of on-duty doctors. The health ministry revealed that so far, 8,897, or 78.5 percent, of the 13,000 trainee doctors from 96 major teaching hospitals have submitted their resignations, with 7,863 not reporting for work.


The government’s response to the doctors’ collective action has been to issue stern warnings, including threats of arrest and the cancellation of medical licenses for those involved in the strike. Additionally, the government raised its health care service crisis gauge to the highest level of “serious” in an attempt to address the fallout from the doctors’ departure.


The core of the dispute lies in the government’s assertion that increasing the number of medical school admissions by 2,000 students next year is necessary to alleviate the doctor shortage, especially in rural areas and in essential medical fields such as high-risk surgeries, pediatrics, obstetrics, and emergency medicine. However, the protesting doctors argue that the government should instead focus on improving protections against malpractice suits and enhancing compensation to attract more physicians to less popular areas of practice.


The Korean Medical Association, the country’s largest doctor’s lobbying group, is planning to convene a meeting to discuss further actions in opposition to the government’s plan. Meanwhile, the shortage of doctors has forced general hospitals to prioritize care for patients in critical condition, with others advised to seek treatment at smaller clinics. Personal accounts from patients like Lee Seon-jeong, whose father was denied hospitalization, and a 31-year-old patient identified only as Kim, highlight the real-world impacts of the ongoing healthcare crisis.

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